Preach Until You Get It

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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

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Why Go To Church?

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1

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!

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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.

That’s crazy.

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.

Woah. 

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.

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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. 

We Are Not The Plan

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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

The-Plan

Unforgivingness

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

It’s hard to talk about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a difficult subject because there are always two sides to forgiveness: The one offering it and the one receiving it.

We, as the beautifully flawed people we are, are uncomfortable with the subject knowing that we have done things that require someone else forgiving us, and we have encountered people who have wronged us to such a degree that we have not offered them forgiveness.

Which means that no matter how we come to the subject, it leaves us squirming in our pews.

It’s one thing to offer forgiveness – it gives us all the power in the world. We can draw out the pardon until our transgressor begs and pleads. We can lord it over our spouses, or our children, or our co-workers, or even our fellow church goers with a vindictive hand.

Receiving forgiveness it a whole other thing entirely. Even if the action is genuine, we can be left feeling as if the scales will never be even again, and we can walk through the rest of our lives with a shackle to a mistake from the past. 

But we’re the church! Forgiveness is supposed to be easy, right?

Hey Lord, um, suppose someone in the church sins against me. Let’s say they talk about me behind my back and spread a vicious and totally untrue rumor. How many times should I forgive them? Does seven times suffice?

Hey Pete, seven is a good number, but why stop there? You should forgive seventy seven times.

I don’t know about you, but I can jump on board with a lot of this Christianity stuff. I’m all about the taking care of the last, least, and lost. I believe, with every fiber of my being that Jesus was raised from the dead. 

But forgiving someone seventy seven times? 

C’mon Jesus.

But, of course, forgiveness is not some moral requirement hanging out in the middle of nowhere. Forgiveness is all sorts of confused and tied up with the raising of the dead. Otherwise, forgiveness is just crazy. 

It goes against just about everything we stand for in every other part of our lives.

There are just some things that are right and some things that are wrong. If someone does something wrong well then they have to do something right to make everything good again.

But forgiveness, at least the kind that Jesus talks about, is a gift offered to the foolish and the undeserving, not a reward bestowed upon the perfect. 

Take the crucifixion… 

God asks for no response to the cross, there’s no moment when Jesus is hanging by the nails and says, “So long as all of you get all your lives together, I will raise from the dead for you.”

There’s nothing we have to do before God offers an unwavering and totally covering pardon. 

But, this doesn’t really jive with our sense of fairness and justice and yet, according to God’s mercy, the only thing necessary for our forgiveness is the death that sin has caused in the person of Jesus.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection contain all the power necessary for the strange thing we call the church.

And, for some reason, forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to talk about even though it is at the heart of what it means to be the church.

The emphasis from Jesus in this little prelude to the parable with Peter is that forgiveness is unlimited. 77, for lots of biblical reasons, is as close to infinity as we can get theologically.

But who really wants to forgive something or someone infinitely?

Which bring us to the parable. 

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The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay the king back, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold away to the next highest bidder.

Jesus, ever the good teacher, starts the story with the law. There are some rules that people have to follow, because life has to be fair. The king is a bookkeeper, like the rest of us. He knows and remembers who has wronged him and to what degree. If you play by the kings rules, if you follow his directions, all will be well.

But if you break the rules… well, we all know what happens if we break the rules.

And then the slave speaks, having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

And we already have questions. How could a slave possibly pay back that amount of money? Why would the king ever let him accrue such a debt like that in the first place? But the Bible doesn’t respond to our queries, the story is all we’ve got.

So how does the king respond? Having just ordered him to be sold along with everything else in his life, having just responded to sin with sin, he simply waves his hand and the slave disappears into his own suffering oblivion.

Or, at least, that’s how the story is supposed to go. We’re supposed to imagine the king as a tyrant smiling diabolically as the slave is dragged out kicking and screaming.

But that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Instead, the king takes pity, releases the man, AND forgives all his debts!

The servant has done nothing more than ask for grace, and grace is what he receives. But it is a grace greater than he ever could have imagined. His slate has been wiped clean, for good. He has been freed from every shackle around his ankle, from the fear that has kept him awake at night, from everything.

That alone would be enough for an incredible parable, a profound witness to grace and mercy. But, of course, that’s not the end.

And before we get to namesake of the story, we are compelled to pause on the action of the king. He offers this incredible forgiveness without much thought. He doesn’t retreat into his antechamber to weigh out the profit/loss margins about the debt, he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisors, he just forgives the debt, and not only that, he leaves the book-keeping business forever. 

The king chooses to die to forgive the man.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the story – to forgive a debt as great as the slave’s is not just a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving that money back the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would be destroyed. 

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift, it’s a radically changed life through death. 

The king chooses to die to what he knew and believed and lived for his slave.

And the slave leaves the presence of the king, still on cloud nine, only to encounter a fellow slave who owed him some money, and when the other slave asks for the same mercy the unforgiving servant throws him into prison until he could pay off the debt.

We might imagine the unforgiving servant as a Bond-movie villain, the worst of the worst. Surely, no one would be so dumb as to receive such incredible forgiveness only to lord a debt over someone else.

But, in reality, the man is exactly what all of us are, people who are unwilling to let go of the old to embrace something radically new.

When the king catches word of what the first slave did, he summons him back before the throne. “What’s wrong with you? Have you no mercy?” And he hands the man over to be tortured until he could repay his whole debt that was previously forgiven. 

Forgive-Me

The king chooses to die. Perhaps not literally, but the king certainly embraces a death to the way things were, for something new and bewildering. The unforgiving servant, on the other hand, receives the greatest gift in the world, but he refuses to die. He refuses to let go of the book-keeping that dominated his life.

To be sure, should this kind of radical forgiveness be instituted across the world, the world would be flipped upside down. Our federal government, our banking systems, just about everything that spins the world would implode upon themselves.

It is so shocking to think about this kind of forgiveness that we can scarcely even imagine it ever happening.

And yet, it already has!

Jesus is setting Peter up with this story, and all of us reading it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world by dying. 

He will destroy death by dying on the cross.

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

It’s like Jesus is shouting at Peter as loud as he possible can, “Unless you die to yourself, unless you die to your insatiable desire for payback, then you might as well live into the torturous existence of the unforgiving servant.”

Or, to put it another way, we will never ever be able to enjoy the gift of the resurrection, a gift handed to us for nothing, if we cannot face the absurdity of our own forgiveness. 

For it is in facing what we have already received that we cannot help but change the way we see everything else.

The king says, “You idiot! I died for you! But you were so busy making plans to collect for yourself that you didn’t even notice!”

And the end of the story is frightening, we cannot sweep it away. The king doesn’t just accost the man for what he did with words; he hands him over to a life of self-inflicted misery.

This parable contains as much mercy as it does judgment.

We, like the unforgiving servant, have received an irrational pardon. We have been forgiven from all that we have done, all that we are doing, and strangest of all, from all that we will do. 

But to live in the light of that kind of forgiveness, to see how God died for us without dying to ourselves to those former lives, will result in a miserable existence.

Out thirst for repayment and retribution will always go unquenched and it will drive us mad.

Without responding to our forgiveness with forgiveness, whatever our lives look like will far more resemble hell than they will heaven. 

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true; if there was a limit to the forgiveness, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus’ interaction with Peter, and the parable he tells to bring the whole matter home, demands that we become a people who can forgive each other. But that presupposes that we know we are a people who have first been forgiven. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Amen.

Nothing New

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 

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On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.

As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus. 

But that’s not actually new.

All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter. 

Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.

It’s about what has been done for us.

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In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!

To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible. 

And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.

And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not. 

And The Plan Shall Set You Free

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

Here are some of the plans being presented:

The Traditional Plan

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

The Simple Plan

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

The Connectional Conference Plan

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

The One Church Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only God can do that.

Why else would we call it Good News?

Back To The Middle

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

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

My college campus ministry was going nowhere. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they almost never did.

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

Literally.

We scrapped everything and began with a clean slate. 

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

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

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

Perfect. Back to the basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ died for our sins.

He was buried in the ground.

He was raised on the third day.

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

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

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

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not our behavior.

Not even a list of beliefs.

But a story.

The story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again.

And he appeared to the disciples.

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

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

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

The ones who get things done.

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

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

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

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

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

To us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they are bursting at the seams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus found us, grabbed us, and forgave us.

What is of first importance for Christ’s church? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That they are like us.

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

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

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

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

The story of God. 

Who came back for us. Amen.