This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11, John 4.5-42). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including scriptural introductions, Christian Twitter, Old Testament preaching, the wilderness of Sin, the “back in Egypt” committee, MewithoutYou, the best parts of the communion liturgy, faith vs. faithfulness, the living water on the cross, and secret snacks. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thirst Trap
What happens when a presidential candidate is refused communion at church? Ryan Couch wrote a brilliant reflection on the subject and Jason Micheli and I invited him to join us for an episode of Crackers & Grape Juice to talk about grace, closed tables, and baptizing the town drunk. If you would like to read his original post you can do so here: Joe Biden, The Town Drunk, And The Sacraments
And you can listen to our conversation here: Fencing Grace
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.
There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there.
Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.
Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:
A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.
One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.
And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away.
And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.
And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.
Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.
There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.
I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”
That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.
But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.
I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.
But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.
That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body.
Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.
As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.
The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice.
And the cross comes with judgment.
Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”
But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.
In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.
And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God.
We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings.
Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.
But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.
And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.
This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything.
There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.
There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”
And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.
And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.
Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies.
And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party.
It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies.
It’s the Gospel. Amen.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s the scene:
A group of people from different backgrounds, ages, races, socio-economic statuses, marital situations, and countries of origin are sitting around a folding table in a dimly lit basement. Just taking a look around the room, it’s clear these people have nothing in common with each other, and the silence is palpable as they occasionally take turns refilling their sub-par coffee in their too-small styrofoam cups.
There’s a man, prematurely balding with an unkempt beard sitting at the far end of the table and he seems to be in charge. In front of him is a simple plate with a dried out piece of bread and a half-consumed bottle of merlot that seems to glow in the candlelight.
“Welcome everyone,” he begins, “Welcome to the first meeting of the gathering.”
“Oh, is that what we’re calling ourselves?”
“Of course it is. We are the gathering. We are a people who gather together. Simple enough. Now, before I jump into the first bits of information, are there any lingering questions?”
“Yeah, who died and made you king?”
“Um, Jesus I guess. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Anything more substantive?”
“Aren’t we going to lay out some ground rules about who is in and who is out?”
“Ohhh, that’s a juicy one. The answer is yes.”
“What do you mean the answer is yes? That doesn’t answer my question at all. Who is in and who is out? What are the requirements for people to gather with the gathering? I think we should expect people to give up certain sins before ever being welcomed like, no more alcohol, certainly no smoking, and absolutely no tattoos.”
Another man chimes in, “I agree, and while we’re at it, lets make sure that only people in happy and healthy marriages are allowed in – no divorced people, we don’t want them screwing this up for the rest of us.”
And another person chimes in, “Absolutely, but why stop there? Now, I mean no disrespect to other people at the table, but its clear that some of you haven’t bathed in some time and we should have some expectations of cleanliness.”
This goes on and on with the list of who could be in getting smaller and smaller while the list of people out got longer and longer. And all the while, the man at the end of the table slowly takes swig after swig from the bottle of wine until it empties and he merely reaches under the table to pull out another and is about to start in on that bottle when they all turn their attention back to him.
“So what’s it going to be?” They say in unison.
“Look,” he begins while wiping his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, “I’m coming to this just like the rest of us. I thought I had my whole life figured out. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I had all the benefits and all the privileges of the world until my world got turned upside down. And now I’m here with all of you, and there’s no going back. But it seems to me all of our squabbles about the in crowd and the out crowd have to stop.”
“Why? Don’t we want to make sure that only the best of the best get to be part of the gathering?”
“Well friends, that’s the whole thing right there. We are all here because we are not the best of the best, in fact there’s no such thing. It is our undeserving that brought us here to this place at this time and the sooner we own that the sooner we can get down to business.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“I’m getting there, hold your horses. God doesn’t just tell us what to do and that’s it. It’s not about having a set list of what’s right and what’s wrong and then living accordingly till the end of our days. God gives us something incomprehensible, in order that all of our differences, which are clearly manifold, and in all of our brokenness, again pretty obvious, that we might find some harmony.”
“Have you not been listening? We can’t even agree on whose allowed to join us or not and you’re already talking about harmony?”
“Yes, there will always be disharmony in our new budding community, but in our divisions we might start to discern the wonderful unity in plurality of the Trinity.
But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me try to come at it from another angle: God sees things that we cannot. That’s the message of the scriptures, all those who came before us in the people Israel, over and over again God found strength in the weak, and weakness in the powerful. God saw impossible possibility in the people God created and in their brokenness he brought them into new life.”
“But if we’re just a bunch of broken people, won’t the gathering be… broken?”
“Exactly! That’s the whole point. We can only welcome one another because Christ welcomed us. We’re all here because of him! Whether we’re weak or strong, young or old, good or bad. To him all of our voices have worth and value. To him, it doesn’t matter one bit whether we’re standing on the highest step or the lowest step of life, we are bound together by him. Forever.”
“Okay, I think I’m starting to see your point. So we’re like the band of mis-fits toys?”
“Sure, if you want to put it that way. But remember the way Jesus put it: We are his body. And a body has lots of parts all working together, and sometimes not together. It’s about figuring out how we all fit together and can work together to build one another up while also seeking the good of those who are not with us.”
“Okay, I’m with you, but are we seriously not going to set up any expectations or requirements to join?”
“Let me try to come at it one more time. How did Springsteen put it? ‘You don’t need no ticket – you just get on board.’”
“Fine, we’re open to anybody. But what are we going to do once all the ragamuffins join us?”
“It’s clear we need to move on, but I want to say something about that word you just used – Open. The gathering is not an “open” endeavor. Sure, in a sense, we are open to everyone. But it’s more than that. We welcome because we were welcomed. And when I say welcome I don’t mean the innocuous, “Anyone is welcome to join us” that we post on Facebook for a neighborhood barbecue, I mean the verb of the word – actually meeting people where they are and welcoming them into something that will radically upend everything they think they know. Isn’t that why all of you are here right now? You could be anywhere doing anything else, but instead you’re here with all these other people with whom you have nothing in common except Jesus.”
The table nods silently in affirmation as everyone considers the truth of the statement. If pressed most of them couldn’t answer exactly why they were there but they knew that they had to be. The different shapes and sizes and histories of the people around the table start to fade away as they start to see one another through the eyes of the one who came to change everything.
The mood has changed since the debates about expectations and without being told they start passing around the communal bottle of red, each tearing small pieces off of the loaf of bread.
“By the way,” the leader says, “I forgot to introduce myself earlier. My name is Paul and I’m glad you are here. I’m glad you’re here because this is kind of what it’s all supposed to look like. The gathering is a Spirit infused, multi-cultural, outwardly focused group that can bear with one another in love. It’s Christlike in the sense that we have our arms outstretched to those we know and those we don’t know. It means, on some level, that we see more than the world sees, and the last, least, lost, little, and dead are precisely the people for us.”
A woman sitting across the table is fidgeting with her fingers and says, “But, how are we going to organize ourselves? Don’t we need some structure?”
Paul thinks for a moment before saying, “Well, I guess we will have to institutional to some degree, but we have to avoid the many trappings of institutions. We have to steer away from self-preservation and move toward people-preservation. It’s not easy, but the gathering is a fellowship of people who are bound together by our faith in Jesus, and not an organization that exists for the sake of the organization.”
“So, we’re not a club and we’re not a civic organization?”
“As far from those things as possible. Ultimately one of the strangest things about who we are and what we’re doing is that we’re not really called to do much of anything at all. If anything, the only thing we have to do is celebrate that we don’t have to do anything. That’s the message of Jesus and his cross. God came to do what we could not and would not do. No amount of belief, or money, or morals can give salvation to us nor take it away. It is simply a gift for those who want it. No catch and no fine print involved whatsoever. If you want to know what the gathering looks like, save for a bunch of people hanging out in a basement, its like an outdoor wedding reception that refuses to stop on account of rain.”
“Paul was it?” A quiet woman speaks for the first time, “Do you happen to have any more wine? We seem to have run out. And, while you’re at it, is there any leftover bread?”
“No time like the present I guess. You see this bottle, and you see this bread? All of what we do and what we say and what we believe are caught up in these ordinary things that aren’t very ordinary. You see, when Jesus was still together with his friends on their final earthly evening together, after years of teaching and preaching and healing, he looked out at that ragtag group of would be disciples and knew that each and every one of them wasn’t good enough. He knew that, when the time came, they would either betray him, deny him, or abandon him. And instead of writing out all the expectations for their meeting, instead of holding them accountable to their inevitable sins, he threw out the whole ledger and said, ‘I love you no matter what.’”
The table grows remarkably quiet as Paul motions for the wine and the bread to be brought back to him at his end of the table. And he says, “Listen carefully. Because what I’m about to say will save your life.”
Christ our Lord invites to this his table…
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is a good amount of people for Maundy Thursday. It is a weeknight after all. But it isn’t as many people as we had for Palm Sunday and, Lord willing, it is smaller than the number of people we will have for Easter.
That’s okay. There wasn’t a big crowd at the first Maundy Thursday either.
And yet you are here.
Why are you here?
We are a people forever stuck in the past.
And we can hardly be blamed.
We only know what we know. And we can’t know what we don’t know.
So our minds, whether we like it or not, are often rooted in days long gone.
Take tonight for instance, some of you can and probably do remember former Maundy Thursdays. And even if you haven’t been to a service like this before, you can know doubt think of a time you’ve received communion. And if you’ve never had communion before, you can certainly think of a time that you’ve shared a meal with someone else.
And because we tend to spend as much time in our minds as we do, we read what is happening in our present through the lens of the past.
It happens in the political realm, and the familial realm, and the theological realm.
When I was a kid my home church had lots of volunteer opportunities.
There were the big ones, you could sign up to read scripture from the lectern during a service, or you could carry in the flame as an acolyte, and every summer you could travel near and far for mission trips.
And there were, of course, the little ones as well. Your family could sign up to be greeters for a particular Sunday, shaking hands with everyone on their way in, or you could join together with some of the older members and fold bulletins every Friday morning, and every Wednesday night you could help serve food for the weekly community dinner.
In my young life, I did all of those things at one point or another, but there was one particular volunteer opportunity that my whole family took care of for a long time: we prepared the communion elements.
This meant that every first Saturday of the month we would drive over to the church and retreat to the sacristy behind the altar. There we would pre-poke the bead with this medieval-like dagger to make it easier for the pastors to tear it apart on Sunday morning, and then we would set out hundreds of tiny little plastic shot glasses within the altar rail using a little squirt bottle to fill every single one.
It would take forever.
And forever really felt like forever when I was ten years old.
On Sunday mornings, every one would arrive at the church none-the-wiser about the work we had put in to prepare everything. Even my family, knowing how long the grape juice had been sitting out in that old sanctuary, we would line up like everyone else and we would patiently kneel at the altar until a piece of bread was placed in our hands, and then we were instructed to drink from one of the little cups, and then we would go back to our pew so the next group could go.
And if preparing communion felt like forever, doing communion was even worse. It was assumed that the sermons on the first Sunday of the month would be half as long so that the congregation would have the time to all come to the altar to receive our stale bread and tepid grape juice.
And this went on for years.
Until one day after worship, I mustered up the courage to approach our aging senior pastor and confront him about our way of the Lord’s Supper. I had been to other churches and seen other variations on how to consume communion. The Catholics would all drink from one cup, and the Presbyterians would pass around these giants trays of circular discs and tiny cups. I’m not sure what propelled me forward that day – perhaps the bread had been extra hard, or my sisters and I had consumed a few too many of the little grape juice shots after worship, but I walked up to the pastor and said, “Why do we do communion this way?”
His response: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
We call today Maundy Thursday. This quaint names come from Jesus’ words at his last supper in John’s gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. In Latin, new commandment is mandatum novum. Maundy is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.
So, we are mandated by God to do what we are doing.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything. Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions. You must do this, you must do that.
All of the musts don’t muster up to a very lively faith.
Instead we trudge into the sanctuary to sing the hymns and offer the prayers because we think we must do it.
We stand and proclaim with bored affectations the words of the Apostles’ Creed because we think we must do it.
We drag ourselves up to the altar to receive the body and the blood because we’ve made it out into our minds that we are mandated to do so.
What are we hungry for?
Are we even hungry at all?
There is always a lot that happens in the eucharist, a lot happens here tonight. In John’s Gospel Jesus spends his final evening breaking bread and drinking wine with his friends, but he ends with getting on the floor and washing all of their feet.
There have been countless traditions throughout the history of the church that are all tied up with what we are doing right now. By the time Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conveys it as “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
And so we remember. We remember how Jesus’ self-giving life included feeding the poor as well as dining with the rich. We remember that Jesus broke bread with the religious elite and the social outcasts. We remember that most of Jesus’ ministry took place around tables with those who both loved him and were confused by him.
And because we spend so much time remembering, we often look at this thing of communion backwards. We focus all of our attention on Jesus’ final night and we get caught up in the “we’ve always done it this way.”
Do you know what it says on our altar? I have it covered so you can’t just take a peek. Any guesses?
“This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”
It fits doesn’t it? We place the bread and the cup on the table, we read the words that Jesus shared with his disciples that final evening, and we do what we are doing in remembrance of all that Christ did.
But somewhere along the way we got our tenses confused.
Communion is not a backwards looking proposition. Yes, it is good and right for us to imagine ourselves in that space with those people on the night in which he gave himself up for us. But to do so as fully and totally as we do denies the fundamental truth that Jesus is here with us tonight in this space and with these people!
Of course communion is about remembrance, but it is equally, if not more, about anticipation. For as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
There was a woman who used to sneak into the church during the first hymn and would often retreat before the final hymn concluded. I would see her from my preaching vantage point but it was as if she planned everything so as to not have to interact with too many people when she came. After a while I noticed that she would only come to church on the first Sunday of the month and when we held our Maundy Thursday service.
Luck had it one day that I was able to catch up with her outside the main doors when she was briskly walking to her car and I asked if everything was okay.
She told me that she was Baptist and that her church almost never celebrated communion. But she knew she needed strength for the journey, so she came every month to commune with us.
I expressed my admiration of her faithfulness and she said that a pastor once told her that communion is where the past, present, and the future get all confused with each other. The pastor apparently meant it as a bad thing, but she fell in love with the idea.
She told me that she loved her church and would never leave it, but that she always needed to feel the confusion of time with us.
Maundy Thursday services often end in a confusing way. Tonight, as we conclude, we will join with Christians across the globe in the striking of our altar. We will remove elements of color and vitality making the turn toward the cross.
We will do so because our sense of time is purposely confused. Jesus has already shared the meal with the friends. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross. Jesus has already broken free from the tomb.
But tonight we both place ourselves in the time of Jesus and we witness to the fact that Jesus is still with us. We will gather at the table not just because that’s what Jesus did, but because it is what Jesus is still doing. And, we will engage in all of this in anticipation of when we will gather at Christ’s heavenly banquet with all who have come before, and all who will arrive long after we’re gone.
This is the place where time gets confused.
And that’s a good thing. Amen.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.
While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.
So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.
I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts.
We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.
We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.
And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.
And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled.
Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.
It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:
Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?
God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus.
We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place.
We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads.
We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.
So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.
Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.
And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.
I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right.
Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.
Moses is the Law.
Elijah is the Prophets.
It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.
And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.
I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.
Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.
The Traditional Plan passed.
438 to 384
53% to 47%
What happened next was a strange thing to behold.
At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing.
This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior all the day long…
In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.
And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.
Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.
And we call ourselves the church.
When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.
There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.
And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.
Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus?
I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church.
In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”
It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.
I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?
But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing.
Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.
Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.
In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.
So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud.
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
I waited until the last second to buy our communion bread for tonight, which was a mistake. I foolishly made the assumption that NO ONE would be at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and when I arrived at Giant, there was not a single available spot in the parking lot – I had to park in front of a Long John Silvers. And then, when I finally got inside, I discovered the fact that they had run out of bread!
So I had to drive to the next grocery store, Safeway. Thankfully, they had some available parking but the inside of the store was packed. But I trudged my way though to the back, procured a few loaves of bread, and then waited in line for an eternity to make my purchase.
Now, to be clear, I was wearing my clergy collar and florescently bright plaid pants, but somehow no one noticed me. Perhaps everyone else was fretting just like me.
At least, that’s what it felt like until I felt the tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and saw an older woman with a few items in her hands staring down at the floor, and she said,“This is my first Christmas without my husband. He died a few months ago.”
I just stood there balancing the bread, and asked if she was okay.
She said, “Not really. I just needed to tell someone, because no one else has asked.”
And then I asked if I could pray with her.
I dropped the bread to the ground and we took each other’s hands while waiting in line, and we prayed.
And at the end, when I said, “Amen,” the six closest people said, “Amen,” as well.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The hopes AND fears of all the years.
Sometimes, throughout the hustle and bustle of this season, I miss the subtle details. I gloss over a profound detail in the scriptural story, or I overlook the miracles in my midst, or I sing words countless times without thinking about what I’m saying.
The hopes and fears.
On Christmas Eve, when we’re singing praises to baby Jesus, and lighting the candles, and enjoying one another, we also encounter the strange truth of our fears being met in the one born in the manger.
While Mary and Joseph were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
There is an understated wealth in the titles attributed to the baby by the angel out in the fields – Savior, Messiah, Lord.
How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ because something new has begun – a newness that contains a reorienting of all things where we are no longer in control of everything we wish to control.
No. A tiny and weak and vulnerable baby will change the world.
Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the the things that have influence over our lives.
Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.
Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.
But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped.
Hope and fear are brought near to us in Jesus because this is the beginning of a story that finds its greatest triumph not in a manger scene, not even in the angels singing out in the fields, but in an empty tomb.
Christmas isn’t just about the warm and fuzzy feelings of warm fires and delicious eggnog. We can rip open the presents tomorrow morning with reckless abandon all we want. But if we take Christmas and the announcement of God as seriously as the shepherds did out in the fields then maybe our proper response is fear.
Not because God will punish us, and not because God is inherently terrifying, but simply because if God gets God’s way, then that means we might not get ours.
The God of scripture is one who finds life, hope, and promise from the margins rather than from the elite and powerful. God consistently uses the least likely of people in the least likely places to achieve the most extraordinary things. The incarnation of God in Jesus is a witness to the fact that we cannot remain as we are.
And that can be a rather terrifying prospect.
The fears of our years are made evident by the many things we cling to that do not provide us life. For some of us it will be the presents we open tonight and tomorrow morning, for others its the paycheck that comes in ever 2 weeks, and for others its a broken relationship or a fractured family.
We put our trust and our hope in so many things these days and we are so regularly disappointed.
We vote for the politician of change only to experience the same bureaucratic bumbling as before.
We seek out new employment opportunities only to still feel exhausted at the end of every day.
We even try out different churches hoping they will fix the problems we’re experiencing.
We might like to imagine that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be equally frightening.
Particularly if its the first one without someone we love.
And yet, as wonderfully weird as is befitting the faith, the angel declares, “Do not be afraid! I am bringing you news great joy!”
To you is born the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.
You need not be responsible for saving yourself and transforming yourself.
You are not alone.
God is already working on you and in you through Jesus Christ! The sign is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a feeding trough. God has and will transform the very fabric of the cosmos through that baby.
God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one who can terrify us even at this time of year, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.
Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.
The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God. Even in the darkest moments of our lives there is an everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight. Amen.
I am the bread of life.
The disciples must have scratched their heads a lot. I mean… Jesus can be pretty obtuse. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” “One must be born again…” “I am the bread of life.” When we read Jesus’ words today, we are blessed (and cursed) with anachronism. Which is to say, we read backwards from our own frame of reference, and it makes it very difficult to hear the words as the disciples heard them.
We know from Sunday School lessons and half-decent sermons that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed because only a tiny amount of faith is necessary to transform the entire world – The disciples’ fledging faith following the crucifixion (and resurrection) was enough to turn the world upside down.
We know from randomly exploring the bible during mediocre sermons that being born again does not mean a literal re-birth from our mother’s wombs. However, we find new life, redeemed life, in and through the person of Jesus Christ.
And we know through regular journeys down the aisle to the altar that Jesus is the bread offered to us as the spiritual food necessary for this strange thing we call life.
But how confusing was all of this to the first disciples? We have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, but they had to hear all of this for the first time, without a lot of context.
Years ago, after a worship service ended, a number of us were standing around enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened.
“So let me get this straight” the boy started, “when we have communion, everyone is invited?
“Of course,” the grandfather remarked casually.
“And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?”
The grandfather hesitated for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy, of course, stood silently for a moment, and then all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “Being a Christian is awesome!”
That young boy’s encounter with the strange and beautiful mystery of Jesus as the bread of life is as close as I’ve ever seen someone come to how the disciples must have felt. It is perplexing and wonderful and awesome. But even more perplexing, wonderful, and awesome than the truth that Jesus is the bread of life is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it! Regardless of our failures and shortcomings, in spite of our desires and desertions, beyond our anachronism and any other isms, Jesus offers us himself, the bread of life.
And it is enough.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Can’t we all just get along?
So asks the woman in her Sunday school class, so asks the friend of his neighbor wearing the Make America Great Again hat, so asks the father of his children fighting in the back seat of the car.
Can’t we all just get along?
You don’t need to hear it from me to know that, at our cores, we can’t really get along. We resent our neighbors for the dumbest reasons, we berate our children for raising their voices after we first raised our voices at them, and we drive through town day after day with clenched fists as we hear the news over the radio.
Sure, getting along in the world might be a forlorn possibility. Maybe our differences in opinion, our polarized political proclivities, and our desire to speak more than to listen will always prevent unity in the world.
But the church should surely be a place of unity, right? If nothing else, can’t we be the place where we just get along?
I passed 15 different churches on my way here this morning. 15! That alone answers the question of whether or not we can get along.
This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is absolutely breath taking: One body, one spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. I can hear Paul crescendo-ing these words in the locker room we call the church. It is the pep talk of all pep talks about what it means to be who we are.
But the more I read it this week, the more I wondered, when has the church ever felt like this? I can’t speak toward what this church was like before I arrived, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a church that felt like what Paul’s talking about. What Paul describes sounds more like a wedding, or a giant party, focused on one particular thing where great pluralities of people can join together in oneness.
In contrast, the church often feels like the place where we are supposed to gather for one, but the plurality is precisely what holds us back.
Most of us tend to think we know best, we insist on our own way, and we are intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. We stand on pedestals of our own making looking down on just about everyone else. And even if we are “tolerant” of the differences, that’s because we are the ones with power! No one wants to be tolerated! We want to be loved and heard and cherished and respected.
Do you all remember the time Jesus traveled into town and gathered everyone together to hear his earth-shattering proclamation? “The kingdom of God is near, and the time has come for toleration!”
Yeah, me neither.
Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.
Paul says the church is called to be one.
But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?
There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.
Easier said than done.
Paul pokes and prods our human tendency toward division and schism by using the word “one” seven times in two verses. We can all imagine the divisive energy that must have been present in Ephesus for Paul to write these words, because those types of arguments are still very much a part of the church today.
The sevenfold emphasis on oneness is at the heart of the great challenge we call the church. How do we find unity in our plurality? Unity, to be clear, is not uniformity. Jesus does not want the church to be a factory where random parts are brought in and perfectly congruent products are shipped out.
And so, as the church struggles toward, or around, the kind of unity that God has already created in the church through Jesus Christ, a unity made possible by the three-in-oneness of the trinity, a question arises: Where have we dug our trenches so deep that we are no longer able to experience this God-given unity?
The line that forms after worship is one of my favorite, and least favorite, things about the church. I love the intimacy that can be found in our narthex as I overhear conversations about the prayers, and the hymns, and even the sermon. I relish in the opportunities to hear feedback about what we all experienced together. And every once in a while I receive the greatest compliment a pastor can ever hear: “I heard God speak to me today.”
But, of course, the narthex can also harbor the resentments that percolated during the service. A wrong word, or phrase, or reading, or hymn can stick with us and boil over when we finally have a chance to let it go. I see the same arguments and disagreements manifest over and over again in small and subtle ways.
A few months back I was observing the strange space that is the narthex following worship, when a new family walked up to shake my hand. They had recently moved to the Woodbridge area and were looking for a new home church. They expressed their joy with our worship and how welcomed they felt. And though we talked about a great number of things, our conversation ended with the father saying, “But we really need to know your opinion about homosexuality, and this church’s opinion about homosexuality.”
Since then, it’s happened three more times with three different families.
And in every one of the conversations it was abundantly clear that however I answered the question would determine whether the family would come back the following week or not.
As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In some churches this means that pastors prevent openly gay individuals or couples from becoming members of the church. In some churches this means that pastors refuse to baptize or offer communion to anyone who is openly gay. And it means that in all churches an openly gay individual is not supposed to be a pastor, and that pastors may not preside over same sex unions.
As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
There are, of course, some churches within the UMC who ignore the language and do whatever they can to welcome those who are gay, and because we, as a church, are not united in our theological convictions about those who are gay, the church is struggling to find a way forward.
There are those who want the language to remain and for stiffer penalties to be enacted against any pastor or conference who violates the tenants of the incompatibility of homosexuality.
Maybe they want uniformity.
And there are those who want the language to disappear all together and to be fully inclusive of anyone who is gay.
Maybe they want uniformity too, just of a different flavor.
And there are those who wish to remain in the middle, they want a church where people who believe it is incompatible, and those who believe it is compatible, are able to sit down in the pews together to worship the living God.
Maybe they just want everyone to get along…
The language surrounding the incompatibility of a human being in Christian teaching is strange and wrong. To say that who someone is makes him or her incompatible with what we do as the church is oxymoronic in a way that is indescribable. So much of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul’s too, was founded upon finding people who were once told they were out and showing them how God in Christ brings them in. The message of Jesus is one where we are made one, regardless of any other identification.
And the incompatibility of Christians, at least the way some use the language, is now also applied to those who believe that individuals are incompatible. Some will use places of power and privilege to say that those who are gay are incompatible. But others will use similar places of privilege to say that if you believe someone is incompatible, then you are now the one who is incompatible with Christian teaching!
The infighting within our denomination about identity such that some are in and some are out, that some are compatible and other are incompatible, is antithetical to the Good News made manifest in Jesus Christ.
Friends, no one is incompatible with Christian teaching. No one.
Or, perhaps better put, we are all actually incompatible with Christian teaching. Not because of our sexual orientation, not because of who we love, but because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul begs, truly begs, us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we were called. And we will never be worthy. None of us.
We, like Paul writes, are so tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, we are moved by trickery. We look out at whatever the other is, and we are so quick to pull out the label of incompatibility.
But it is in using that label we become the thing we so label!
Here is the truth spoken in love. You and I, all of us here, we are broken and battered disciples. We are incompatible with the one born in the manger and delivered from the tomb. We have grown apart and ignored the call to grow into him who is the head, into Christ. It is Christ who joins all of our incompatibilities and knits together every ligament of our greed and our sinfulness and our judgments and builds us up in love.
Hear Jesus as he speaks to us throughout the centuries, hear his voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. He is not just being nice and asking us to be a little kinder, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Jesus didn’t get killed for saying we ought to love one another. Jesus got hung on a cross for calling out the sinfulness of the world and the sinfulness in you and me; The shouts of “crucify!” came because the crowds knew that the message of Jesus would disrupt the power dynamics in which they were most comfortable.
Even today, Jesus speaks to us and disrupts what we think we know about who is in and who is out. Because the truth, the hard truth, is that none of us should be in. None of us.
And yet, this meal, what we call Christ’s communion, is offered to all, as surely as Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but all of us belong together and brothers and sisters.
All of us are poor sinners and all of us are rich through Christ’s mercy. In our incompatibility, we are made one. Amen.
1 Samuel 3.1-10
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Words are important.
What we say often shapes what we believe and, perhaps even more importantly, it shapes how we behave.
Take the common words we all offer together after the scripture is read in worship: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. We say those words week after week, and if you’re like me, you don’t really think about what we’re saying.
But those words are really important, and they say a lot about what we think theologically.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.
But what about those difficult text from the bible? What are we supposed to do, or say, or believe about the scriptures that make us uncomfortable? Should we be thankful for something that makes us squirm?
But Jael took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the tent peg through his skull, until it went down into the ground and he died. (Judges 4) The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission (Timothy 2). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?
What are we communicating to young people, or those individuals who are new to the faith, when we say we are thankful for God’s Word when perhaps we’re not?
Additionally, words mean different things to different people based on a variety of different contexts. What you can say to one individual, and how it is received, is not the same as what you could say to someone else.
I have a long habit of adapting words to particular contexts and individuals. For instance, during vacation bible school, when dozens of young children are in our building, I’m not breaking out the bible stories about tent pegs being driven through skulls, or rules about genitalia, or verses about women’s subordination. Those kids, like the scriptural story today tells us, are like Samuel and they do not yet know the Lord.
Similarly, if I’m teaching a Sunday School class to seasoned Christians, I’m not going to just talk about how nice it is that God loves us. It’s true, but that kind of simple affirmation alone doesn’t challenge us to be any better than we were before we heard it.
The church is supposed to be a supple and open avenue to God’s ways in the world such that we can delight and rejoice when God moves outside of our expectations and reaches people where they are rather than assuming that they’ll figure it all out on their own.
That’s one of the reasons that we keep coming back to do this strange and wonderful thing we call worship. For Samuel it took God’s calling in the night three times, and the wisdom of a mentor, to help him know that God was encountering him. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of Sundays before we hear it.
Of all the stories in the bible, this one, this nighttime calling, might have the most ominous beginning: The Lord’s Word was rare at that time. This meant there were few prophets, decent sermons were all but gone, and the Lord seemed to be nothing more than an idea. And yet it is precisely at this time when the Word was rare that God intrudes and upends expectations.
When we have communion we, like many Christians, are invited to the table, we confess our sins, share signs of peace, and then share the bread and the cup together. While you all line up in the center aisle and make your way toward the altar, I will adapt the words I use as I offer the body of Christ. For some of you, well seasoned in your faith, I can say the words that have been said for centuries: “The body of Christ, given for you.” But for others, saying something like this only produces more questions, and so I will adapt the words, and instead I might say something like, “The gift of God for you” or “This is Jesus” or “God loves you.”
A few months ago we had a fairly typical Sunday service, the sermon was around a B- quality, the hymns fit well with the theme of worship, and then we moved to the table. We said and did what we always do, and then we feasted. I offered the body of Christ to all who came forward and there was a young girl who I’d never seen before, and when I tore off the bread I said to her, “God loves you.” And then I kept serving everyone else.
When our service ended, the young girl’s mother shook my hand on her way out of church and then she said words I’ll never forget, “That’s the first time my daughter’s ever had communion. Thank you.”
And I couldn’t help but think, “What if that was the first time she ever heard that God loves her?”
Years from now I can imagine that girl graduating high school and entering college. Though fully endowed with a message of faith and love here in this place one Sunday, she never steps foot in a church after that day for one reason or another. High School is tough for her as she wrestles with her identity and wondering if life is about more than what she has experienced. The good grades never feel good enough, the friendships never feel close enough, and no matter what she tries it always seems like something is missing.
So without really knowing why, she applies to some university, and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new chapter will be better than high school.
Sadly, it’s not. College life for her is filled with even more people, and she feels less and less connected. She falls through the cracks of campus life and spends far too much time alone in her dorm. She still believes that life must get better but she’s not seeing any indication of it. One night, however, her roommate invites her to a campus ministry service. She reluctantly attends, and is truly underwhelmed by the experience.
The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Gospel, whatever that means. She sits and listens attentively but she knows that she’ll never come back. But right before the service ends, the pastor brings out a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately, the girl is brought back to that morning when she walked down the aisle in this church when she heard a bearded man wearing a long black dress talking about communion. While her mind is flooded with memories from the past she makes her way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out her hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus while the pastors whispers just loud enough for her to hear: “God loves you.”
But, sadly, I can imagine that even after that profound moment of the past catching up with her future present, the knowledge of God’s love doesn’t stick. The girl continues through school and eventually meets her husband. They get married shortly after graduation, and move to a new city for work. Years pass, and even though all of the things on the outside look perfect – she has a few children, a steady job, and a home – she still feels like something is missing.
She tries to find fulfillment in her life: She joins young professional groups, she volunteers at the local soup kitchen when she has time, she even helps start a community garden. But nothing seems to fill the void she feels.
One day, however, a neighbor invites her and her family to the local United Methodist Church. She laughs while responding about how her mother dragged her to a UMC one Sunday morning when she was a kid but the neighbor is persistent and she eventually agrees to go to worship.
The woman sits with her family in church on Sunday morning. She stands when she is supposed to, sings when everyone else does, she even bows her head and mutters some version of a prayer under her breath. She listens to the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and too repetitive. And then the pastor moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ offers without price. The pastor says, “This table is the one true place we can find who we are and whose we are, because in the bread and cup we discover grace. We are living in a time when the Word of the Lord is rare – but at this table you can hear God calling, because here you find the God whose finding you.”
With tears welling up in here eyes, tears she cannot explain, the woman walks forward. She remembers that day long ago at Cokesbury UMC, she remembers the night in college when she walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as she stretches out her hands the pastor whispers just loud enough for her to hear, “God loves you.” And for the first time she believes it.
One of the hardest things in the world to accept is the fact that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we, more than anyone else, know what we have done and what we have left undone. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we believe that we are unworthy of the love of God we so often hear about in church.
Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it takes more than a simple affirmation from the pulpit, it takes more than hearing it whispered during communion, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard for the message to sink deep in every fiber of our being. We need to hear those words over and over and over again but they are true and remarkable and difficult.
When the Word of the Lord was rare during Eli and Samuel’s life, no one was expecting God to do something like call upon a young boy in the temple. The call completely disrupted his life not with peace, but with a call to disturb to the peace.
Why a kid? God does not call the equipped, God equips the called. God bypassed the expected and seasoned possibility of Eli, and went instead for the untrained and immature Samuel.
God does whatever God wants. But this story, this calling, is also about more than that. God loves upsetting our expectations.
God loves loving us, even when we do not love ourselves. Amen.