Believing Is Seeing

Mark 10.46-52

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

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

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

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

It was empty.

No ushers. No greeters. No nothing.

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

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

And so I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what life can do to us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happens between these two figures? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does Bartimaeus ask for? Mercy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens next, is up to us. Amen. 

Church Is Good For You

Psalm 34.8

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

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

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

Literally: church is good for you.

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

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

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

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

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

He was right.

And now we have the research to prove it!

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

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

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

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

The Adventure of Faith

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave or all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

There was an incident as a prestigious university a number of year ago, perhaps the same one where I went to seminary, during which, one random fall morning, their was a disheveled looking beggar sitting on the steps leading into the Law School.

The sight was quite the juxtaposition on the immaculately manicured campus.

The next week the same beggar, bandaged and certainly in need of help, sat by the doors leading into the School of Medicine.

One week later and the beggar was back again, bruised and bloodied, and this time he was laying down by the entrance to the Divinity School.

By this time, the university decided they had to put an end to these incidents and so they alerted the police to be on the look out for the questionable figure on campus.

However, when they surrounded the beggar a few days later, the beggar began removing his outer clothing and his bandages and his fake beard and produced a Student ID card. He was in the midst of his PhD in Sociology and had been conducting an experiment on campus.

The idea behind his escapades was to discern if people from certain academic disciplines were more or less inclined to helping a stranger in need. After all, he had a pretty decent set of variables to work with, and it didn’t take him long to set up the whole experiment.

Months later, when he published his findings, the campus was in a bit of a shock.

Apparently, while laying out in front of the Law building, countless students offered him money but that was the extent of what they were willing to do.

A fair number of students enrolled in the Medical School offered to examine his injuries or escort him over to the hospital.

And while perched in front of the Divinity School, not a single student nor professor stopped to offer anything. Well, they apparently offered lots of excuses but nothing more.

In fact, the story goes that they only person who stopped in front of the Divinity School was a janitor, who risked losing his job in order to help make sure the beggar was taken care of.

James and John, the brothers Zebedee, are idiots. Jesus teaches them about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Jesus offers them miraculous food to eat when they see nothing but scarcity, Jesus even spells the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can and still, they miss it all. They approach their Lord and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom. 

These fools want power while God in the flesh has told them time and time again that glory comes in weakness.

In short, the brothers Zebedee are out of their league.

And yet, just as Peter blurted out his own non-sequitur desire to build houses up on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, James and John fumble out their desire for greatness.

Perhaps, like us, when these brothers are confronted with seemingly bad news, they prefer to keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.

“Excuse us JC, it’s all good and fine for you to talk about that Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over?”

And JC, like a good rabbi, answers their question with a question.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!”

“Okay,” Jesus intones, “I just want to make sure we’re all clear, then, about what that means. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, pay attention as I say this for the 50th time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to be great, you have to be the least. For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to his his life a random for many. Got it?”

The disciples, James and John and all the rest, they want glory, they want power, they want prestige.

These fools are just like us! Looking for the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance!

But glory, according to the strange new world of the Bible, is not how we so often picture glory. We might imagine the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right college, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.

However, this is how Jesus describes glory: The Son of Man, God in the flesh, serving humanity from the hard wood of cross, rectifying the sins of all those who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons.

At the end of the day it’s important to remember that the Gospel, the Good News, is a story. It’s not a self-help program, it’s not a textbook with steps to salvation, it’s not program for perfect morality. It’s a story, actually the story, that renarrates all of our stories. 

Whenever we enter the strange new world of the Bible, its impossible to miss how the whole thing, particular the New Testament, is organized around a journey. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end that is really a new beginning.

And, like most journeys, we know we have somewhere to go, but we never really know what we will encounter along the way.

The same is true of the disciples, then and now. Disciples follow Jesus, but we clearly don’t know a lot more than that.

Following Jesus, then and now, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we do not know where it will lead and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the entire ride.

What are the marks of faithfulness, or discipleship, today? Do you have to be baptized? Do you have to have perfect worship attendance? Do you have to tithe? 

Notably, Jesus never says to his disciples, “You have to believe these five propositions in order to be a disciples” or “You must engage in this list of Spiritual Disciplines.”

He merely says, “Follow me.”

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence is a betrayal of the magnitude of discipleship.

Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. It’s not about having some sort of emotional response to the Spirit, or making some sort of public proclamation about Jesus’ lordship. Those things can, and dare I say should, happen.

But they are not discipleship. They, to put it bluntly, are not the Good News.

In the end, discipleship is nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the road of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the safe and secure knowledge that he’s in charge.

Therefore, we never really choose to be Christians. 

Discipleship is something done to us.

I’ve never not been a Christian. I’ve spent my whole life in and around and the church and don’t know know anything different. But even those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by making a decision. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually find ourselves within a community like this one.

That something is named Jesus Christ.

It just kind of happens that at some point we realize we’re caught up on the journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty Good News! It’s very Good News because it means the church has room for those with tremendous faith and for those with tremendous doubts. The church has room for those who feel like they’re on top of the world and for those who feel like their down in a ditch. It means the church is a journey, an adventure, in which we are always moving.

And yet, like any journey, there are signposts, guides, billboards that help us know where we are going.

To be on the way of faith, to be caught up in the adventure of grace, means imitating the moves of the master. That is: we learn and live and move and have our being by repetition, by habit, by practice.

That’s why Jesus is forever telling stories. Notice: Jesus stories are not about esoteric conceptions that college freshman debate in Philosophy 101. Jesus’ stories, instead, are centered down in the muck and the mire of life. Jesus tells stories about things like anger, justice, disappointment, fear, money, jealousy, forgiveness, relationships – you know, the things we all deal with on a daily basis. 

Those stories, those words, they become the habits around which our lives are made intelligible. This happens because Jesus’ stories are always about himself, and if we take seriously the claim that we have been incorporated into His body, then they are also stories about us.

Here’s a parable that Will Willimon tells which, of course, riffs on one of Jesus’ parables:

“There’s a barber who, after a day of cutting people’s hair for money, goes out to a hospital for the mentally challenged and cuts hair for free. A friend of his is an accountant who, after a long day of serving people’s financial interests for money, goes out at night to cruise local bars, to pick up women for one night stands, and to enjoy himself as much as possible. Both men, the barber and the accountant, are apprentices, people attached to some larger vision of what life is about, why we are here. One is attached to Jesus. The other is attached to consumerism and selfish hedonism. So the interesting question to ask them is not the abstract ‘What do you believe in?’ But, instead is it the concrete question, ‘Whom are you following?’”

Faith is about following.

Jesus says to the disciples, then and now, “Take up you cross and follow me.” When we respond to that call, it means that Jesus will lead us place, places we might not ever imagine.

Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”

Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then the Lord takes us somewhere else. That journey might look like spending a few hours on a Saturday morning helping with a yard sale in a church fellowship hall. Or it might look like volunteering over with Kid’s Soar helping kids with their education. Or it might look like serving as an usher on Sunday mornings helping to embody the love of God in your interactions with others. 

Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved by mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some joyful part of the journey. What we do in our service, which is but another word for discipleship, whether we’re volunteering with a local organization or helping at church to bring about a new vision of the kingdom, all of those things form us while we are doing them.

Discipleship, then, isn’t something we ever really finish; discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do. Which, in the end, it what makes it so fun. Amen. 

(More) Reasons To Join A Church

Psalm 104.24

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

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

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

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

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

On The Road (Again)

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name of Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were are the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the woman had said; but they did not see him.” 

I haven’t been here all that long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because some of us having been coming to church for so long that we know longer know why we do what we do, or we are new enough that we just assume this is what we do without knowing why we do it.

And yet, everything we do, and I mean everything, has a purpose.

Throughout the month of October we’re going to look at some of the different things we do as disciples and we’re going to talk about why we do them. Today we begin with why we worship the way we do.

For the last 2,000 years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century and the time of the Acts of the Apostles, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to contemporary gymnasiums with folding chairs, to the comfort of our couches via the internet, worship is what we do as Christians.

Worship follows a liturgy. Liturgy comes from the Latin Liturgia which means “work of the people” and it is the work we do when we worship. You might not know it but our liturgy has four distinct parts regardless of whether we’re in the contemporary or traditional service: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth

These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specially connected with the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So today, we’re breaking up the sermon into four little mini sermonettes in order to see the connections between the strange new world of the Bible and our world today.

Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, the disciples responded by breaking bread and sharing a cup during which their eyes were opened to the presence of God, and then the disciples were sent out to proclaim what they saw and heard.

So, we begin at the beginning – Gathering. 

But, when does our worship actually start? Is it when the candles are finally lit? Is it when I step up to make an announcements? Is it when the live-stream starts?

Worship, believe it or not, begins long before we even enter the building. God is actively and intimately involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in our thoughts while we’re making our way to church, in our conversations in the parking lot, and even in the silence as we sit in the pews before the first note it played and before the first word is offered.

And, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we bring our experiences and our thoughts and even our anxieties to church. They are not meant to be left outside of our doors! They are very much a part of how we worship because speaks into our experience. That is: church is not some reprieve from the greater world even though it can be – church gives us the vocabulary to understand the greater world around us.

God then continues to gather us as the candles are lit. The light here is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, the light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and our discipleship. 

Similarly, the music in our time of gathering centers us and proclaims, literally, that we have entered something different, in space and in time, than what we were doing before. The melodies and the words and even our movement are part of how God encounters us and gathers us for this work.

Because worship is work. Or, perhaps better put, worship is a habit. We do it over and over and over again to retune our minds and tone our bodies in order to be God’s people in the world. 

This is how God gather us every week, just like God in Christ gathered the disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

After Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on and on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, sharing words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks to us and our experiences today.

Our scriptures, more often than not, come to us on Sunday morning from something called the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings for every Sunday on the liturgical calendar and actually unites our local churches with all sorts of other churches – there is a very good chance that what we proclaim from the Bible on any given Sunday is also what is being read in other churches both locally and globally. 

We boldly read and proclaim God’s holy scriptures in the knowledge that God will someone speak through them to us about who we are and whose we are.

However, the sermon, unlike everything else in our liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, some are sad and pensive, and some are bold and demanding, but they are always determined by the scriptures to which they point.

Karl Barth put it this way: the one thing preachers must do in preaching is open the eyes of their churches to the treasure of scripture that is spread before us, and then gather those treasures and pass them on to the congregation. 

In other words, preachers dare to speak about God. And God, bewilderingly, chooses to speak to us through preaching. 

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God in Christ proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So, let’s hear what God has to say to us today…

Sermon: A one-sentence sermon – God meets us on the roads of life, proclaims the Good News through likely and unlikely places, is revealed when we eat at the table, and sends us to the share Good News to all who will hear it. Amen. 

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. And, while they gathered around a table, Jesus took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. And then, and only then, were their eyes opened to the Truth in their midst. It was only in responding to the words on the road, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, were they able to recognize how their hearts had burned within them.

The third part of our liturgy is Responding. We do this on any given Sunday by offering our tithes and our gifts back to God, we listen to an anthem or a particularly moving song, we pray and consider how we might continue to respond to what God is saying, but the fullest and most faithful way we respond is by sharing the same meal that Jesus shared with the disciples on the road.

The holy meal is worthy of its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that when we share the bread and when we share the cup – that’s what being a Christian is all about. Through the power of the Spirit we are connected in the meal to all who have come before us, and we are connected to all who will feast long after we’re gone. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to which all of us are beckoned in our deaths, and it is where we are consumed by that which we consume. 

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by offering ourselves and feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the disciples from the road. So, let’s respond to the Lord…

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples who sat at the table with the Lord when the fullness of the moment was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what that was like for, whenever we gather to feast, we experience the same. 

In worship our eyes are opened to the power and presence of Jesus in our midst.

The disciples were so moved bye their experiences of being gathering on the road and of hearing Jesus proclaim the scriptures, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard.

When we are confronted and met by the power and glory of God in worship, we can’t help but go forth to share the good news with all who will hear it.

Each week we “end” our worship with a benediction and a song but our worship doesn’t really end – instead we take what happened here with us into the world as people who live and speak the praise of God.

This is how we are sent forth week after week, just like the disciples who ran to tell their friends what they saw and heard. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world…

A Different Kind Of Church

Psalm 124.8

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

“A Different Kind Of Church.”

Or: “Not Your Typical Church.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put that up on a billboard and see what happens!

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

Expect The Unexpected

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. 

But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.

Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.

Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.

It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.

“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”

As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.

And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.

“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”

A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people. 

Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.

And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.

God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.

Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.

Because none of us deserve him. 

She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even. 

Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.

In other words, God likes crowded tables.

There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.

But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?

Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.

And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.

Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”

When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”

And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”

Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.

In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.

Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.

The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.

There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.

And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.

I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since. 

A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.

And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.

Until that night.

The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”

The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”

So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help. 

She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.

They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”

He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her. 

She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in. 

Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.

We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.

But that is the heart of grace.

We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.

People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us. 

God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.

God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace. 

One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate. 

And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen. 

A Place At The Table

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things. 

One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.

And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands. 

Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t. 

So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”

These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.

How does Jesus respond?

“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”

And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:

“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”

It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”

Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.

Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.

Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.

And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?

If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”

We are what’s wrong with the world.

Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.

How can we fix what’s wrong within us?

Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.

Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.

And while some people love it, others hate it.

Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”

It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.

Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.

The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.

The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?

The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.

And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.

There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.

Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.

And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”

A small uproar ensued.

And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.

And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.

What, then, are we called to do?

*Ladder Demonstration*

In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.

Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. 

Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?

The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.

And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.

Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.

The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!

When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.

Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.

In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news. 

There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.

It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!

In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…

Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.

In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen. 

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

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

What’s right with the church?

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

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

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

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

Or so I’ve been told.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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