This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the youth of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church about the readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Micah 6.1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12). Our conversation covers a range of topics including youthful church members, confirmation, divine requirements, humility, the outward signs of a Christian, foolishness, sanctuary signage, preaching, Karl Barth, and blessings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: #Blessed
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Dear Paige, Maggie, Keeli, Braelyn, Liam, Emma, and Sophia,
On this, the day of your confirmation, I have decided to write a letter instead of a sermon. Though, for what it’s worth, most sermons are like letters anyway. And, because this is the occasion of your confirmation, it is also a letter for all who call this church home for, God is confirming their faith just as much as yours.
Therefore, let me begin in a scriptural way: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
There is no way that you can possibility comprehend what is about to happen to you. Part of the life of faith is coming to grips with an adventure that, though we know not where we are going, we at least know who is with us along the way: That who has a name: Jesus.
50 days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, after Easter, the disciples were all in one place together. They had recently witnessed their Lord ascend to rule at the right hand of the Father, and were rebuked for keeping their eyes in the sky. And without knowing what would happen next, they were confronted by the wild and reckless Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is all about the unknowability of God. Whenever we think we know what’s going to happen, whenever we congratulate ourselves for finally figuring out the divine, God pulls one over on us and we’re left scratching our heads.
The sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the disciples – divided tongues as of fire appear among them and they were able to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.
Fun fact, the story gets even better, because when they busted out of their gathering place the crowds who encounter the disciples accuse them of being drunk even though it’s only 9 in the morning. They are accused of being drunk because they are stumbling around into a new strange world that they can scarcely wrap their heads around.
I hope that, in some way, you leave from church today staggering around like those first disciples. In fact, I hope that happens every Sunday, because when the Spirit encounters us, we can’t help but walk away altered.
Those early disciples, the ones who walked the roads of Galilee with Jesus, the ones who spoke with tongues of fire, they were compelled to tell the Good News to all who would hear it, because, it was the difference that made all the difference.
Through your confirmation we have bombarded you with all sorts of things – scripture, creeds, tradition, prayer, denominationalism, sacraments, mission. You’ve been exposed to all the parts that make the church the church. But above all, in confirmation you have been taught the faith. But this is only the beginning.
Learning the faith is like learning to speak a new language. You can read all the books in the world about it, but you can’t do it until you do it. And, just like a language, you can’t learn it without others and without practice.
A few months back one of you asked, “How can you tell the difference between God speaking, and your gut?”
That is easily one of the all time best questions asked of a preacher. It’s a great question because all of us have that question, and because the answer is right in front of us every Sunday.
Whatever it means to be Christian, it at least involves the discovery of friends we did not know that we had. You see, church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather together with people who think, speak, and act differently than themselves.
None of you go to school together. Think about that for a moment. Whereas most friendships are born out of commonalities like schools, or extracurricular actives, you only know each other because of Jesus.
And that’s true for the rest of us as well!
The only real thing we have in common is Jesus.
That’s important. For, the only way any of us can ever hold fast to the promises of scripture is through the community we call church. In order to hear the promises of God we need others to declare those promises to us over and over again, particularly when we feel like we can’t believe them or that they’re no longer true.
But God really does love you, in spite of all the reasons that God shouldn’t.
The noise of the world will be deafening at times, trying to tell you what to think and what to believe. But it can never compete with the wild rushing wind of the Spirit, the various languages that rose up for the Gospel, because those words reveal who we are and whose we are.
In life we are habituated by many languages. Like the language of literature, the language of baseball, the language of dance, the language of music, they all form us and shape us in ways seen and unseen. But today, on Pentecost, we are reminded that our first language is the language of faith and that before we are anything we are Jesus people.
The only way we can tell the difference between whether God is speaking to us or we’re listening to our gut, is by sharing it with others and having it confirmed by them.
We told you over and over again during this season of confirmation that: Baptism is God’s way of saying ‘yes’ to us, and confirmation is our way of saying ‘yes’ to God.
The simplicity of that sentence betrays the confounding nature of confirmation. Saying ‘yes’ to God means being caught up in God’s story in the world, it means receiving friends you never knew you had, it means fumbling out into the world not knowing exactly what the Spirit is up to.
And even though you will be confirmed individually, confirmation can only take place with and by others. The same is true of the sacraments. You can’t baptize yourself, and you can’t give communion to yourself. It is something done to us within the community of faith by others.
We only learn what it means to be Christians by watching other Christians within the church and doing what they do. To be Christian means being together. Which, of course, isn’t easy. Particularly because we believe in telling the truth, even to those we love.
But, as Tom Holland of Spider-man fame put it, “I personally think if something’s not a challenge, there’s no point doing it, because you’re not gonna learn much.” (That’s for you Sophia).
Being a Christian might be the greatest challenge of your life. Not because it comes with all sorts of rules and requirements, but because it runs so counter to the rest of the world.
The world worships the first, the greatest, the found, the big, and the alive.
But God comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
The world runs by deception and destruction.
The Kingdom of God runs by mercy.
The world is full to the brim with bad news.
Jesus comes to bring Good News.
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, the tall and the small, the old and the young, the good and the bad. It’s not because we earned it. It’s not because Jesus was finally pleased with all of our faith. It’s because we needed it.
And we still do.
It is my hope and prayer that, throughout your lives, you will hear the Good News: You are part of an adventure that is made possible by God’s relentless grace. You have a place in God’s church no matter what you do or leave undone. You are loved by God and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. You are forgiven.
When we went on our confirmation retreat to Alta Mons there was a considerable amount of content we had to cover. We had to explore the theological proclamation of the Trinity, we had to tell the whole story of the Bible, we had much to do.
And chances are, you won’t remember any of it. And that’s okay. The life of faith takes a lifetime. But, even though you won’t remember most of that content, I do hope you remember the feeling of being together, of going on a walk as the sun went down and being silent with God, of laughing hysterically at the dinner table with every new revelation about the people sitting next to you, of singing songs by the campfire, of sharing bread and cup by the waterfall.
You see, those are the real marks of a Christian. Not a list of good deeds to make us feel better about ourselves. Not perfect attendance in church every single Sunday.
Being together is what makes possible being Christian.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen: On the day of Pentecost, one of those seemingly drunk disciples got up to preach and afterward 3,000 people welcomed the message and joined the way. Scripture says they responded to God’s Spirit by devoting themselves to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.
People often assume that the church’s primary business is to get people out of their badness and into a life of goodness. But it isn’t. If that happens, well then that’s wonderful. But the primary mission of the church is to proclaim grace, to tell the story, to share the invitation to the cosmic bash we call the kingdom of God.
God’s love does not depend of what we do or what we’re like.
There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, we can do to make God love us any more, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.
God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.
God is a shepherd who never gives up searching of the one lost sheep, a parent who is always looking down the road for the prodigal and any excuse to throw a party, a sower who keeps scattering seed no matter the cost.
I hope you see and know and believe that the language of faith is surprising. You might even come to a time in your life when you find yourself surprised that you are, indeed, a Christian. But you need not be surprised. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is full of surprises. Just look around. Amen.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken though the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
When Jesus tells you to do something, you do it. Sometimes it takes us a long time to figure this out, but for the disciples it must have been second nature. Two disciples were told to enter the next village and there they would find the necessary transportation; a donkey and a colt. “If anyone asks what you are doing, don’t worry about it, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs them.’”
So the disciples went into the village, found the animals, and brought them back to Jesus. The rest of the disciples took off their cloaks and placed them on the donkey for Jesus to sit on. As they approached Jerusalem crowds of people took off their own cloaks, gathered palms from the fields, and placed them on the road for Jesus’ donkey to trample on. The people were shouting “Hosanna (Save us now!) to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Finally, when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This story opens up for us Jesus’ royal status in a public setting. Rather than entering the holy city with an army wielding swords and shields, this king of kings entered Jerusalem humbly and gently on the back of a donkey. This was, of course, to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” Yet, you have to wonder, what did the crowds make of this prophet entering Jerusalem the way he did?
Matthew tells us that the crowds rejoiced to such a degree that they took off their clothes to place them on the road. They were so enamored by this coming prophet that they took it upon themselves to adorn the dirty roads with their cloaks as a symbol of royalty. They shouted “Hosanna Hosanna” while waving the palms branches just as we did this morning. But, at the end of the scripture, the whole city of Jerusalem is apparently in turmoil, as if an earthquake had happened, and they begin to ask, “Who is this?”
The irony that follows our particular story is tragic. Within a week’s time the crowds that were shouting “Hosanna!” began to shout “Crucify!” The disciples that were so willing to find the donkey and use their own clothing as a saddle, would fall asleep on their Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. The people who walked before Jesus announcing his triumphant entry in the holy city, would follow behind him as he dragged his own cross to the top of calvary. In Jesus’ last pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the son of David reenters David’s city, but the only throne he will find is on a cross.
Is is frighteningly easy for us to think that by celebrating Palm Sunday we are acknowledging Jesus as a king in the way that Jerusalem failed to do! We need to be constantly reminded of how easy our shouts of “Hosanna” can change to “Crucify.”
Over the course of Lent this year, our confirmation class has been gathering together every week after church to learn more and more about this thing we call discipleship. Every time we gathered we shared a meal, just like Jesus would have with his disciples, and then we jumped right into the lesson. We focused on how Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches; to follow Christ we need to bear fruit in our lives.
The weekly lesson always had activities paired with them in order to flesh out what we had been talking about. When we looked at God the Father we discussed creation, sin, and redemption. We cut out pictures from magazines that reminded us of sin and discussed ways to avoid the temptations of our lives. When we focused on the Holy Spirit we all took turns wearing blind folds and walked around the church property helping to guide one another the way that the Spirit guides us. When we talked about Paul we wrote letters to our church about things we do well, and things that we need to change. I gave the youth old dinner plates and a permanent marker, inviting them to write down any negative memories, disappointments, or frustrations, and then we took the plates into the parking lot and smashed them into a hundred pieces. The following week we used those broken pieces to adorn our cross that now stands here in the sanctuary.
One of my favorite actives from confirmation this year occurred when we talked about God the Son, Jesus Christ. I invited each of the confirmands to take 10 minutes to walk around our church building and look for Jesus. They were told to find words, phrases, or pictures that reminded them of their Lord and then write it down. Once we gathered back together, we shared what we had found and then I asked them the same question that the people in Jerusalem asked after Jesus entered on the back of a donkey: “Who is Jesus?”
The room was silent. Even though they had walked around the building and shared their discoveries with one another, they were reluctant to even attempt to answer the question.
As I stood there before our confirmands, uncomfortably waiting in the silence, I realized how difficult that question is: Who is Jesus?
I have often heard people remark that the youth are the future of the church. Logically speaking, this is true. One day we will return to dust and those who are younger than us will remain. But they are also very much the church right now. So, young people, listen to me very carefully: Confirmation is just like taking those first steps into Jerusalem. All of the adults here are looking at you to save them and the church. But, be careful, because their cries of hosanna can change to crucify before you even realize it.
We all do it. We look at the promise of youth, thanking God for their lives and imaginations, but as soon as they step too far we are ready to chastise them. So, as an example, here are some of the things that our confirmands wrote to our church:
Dear St John’s… I love the way that you greet everyone when they enter church. I love how our church feels like one big family. I love the way you care about me.
All wonderful and positive affirmations about what we do. Hosanna indeed.
But each letter also had to include things that we could change, ways that we could be better:
I wish we had younger people in church on Sundays. I think that we need actually start doing something for those in need. Maybe we can start a garden and give all of the produce away. I think we should start clapping for the choir after they sing a really wonderful song, rather than just sit in silence.
Not terribly offensive, but certainly different. I imagine that these young minds have countless suggestions of how we can do church differently, how we can embody the will of God in what we do, how we can make the Word incarnate in our lives. But, if it makes us uncomfortable, if it pushes us too far, how are we going to react? Will we still look at them with “hosannas” on our mind, or will we dismiss these new innovative ideas just as Jesus was dismissed by the crowds?
So, to the more mature gathered here at St. John’s this morning: I encourage you to look on these bright young confirmands with hope and respect. Do not jump to conclusions about their ideas simply because they are young and inexperienced, they could be closer to the will of God than any of us. Their answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” might be completely different than yours, but if you ask them, they can show you a side of our Lord that you’ve never known.
And to the confirmands I say this: Remember that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a humble way, without a sword, vulnerable to whatever his enemies wished to do to him. As Albus Dumbledore once said, “the truth is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with caution.” We want to hear your ideas, we want to see the world and the church through new perspectives, but be humble in the way you share what you see with us. Be kind in your sharing, and we will return that kindness in our hearing. Their answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” might be completely different than yours, but if you ask them, they can show you a side of our Lord that you’ve never known.
Today, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is a cautionary tale reminding us of how quickly our opinion can sway; how quickly we can be divided; how quickly we can forget that we are one body in Jesus Christ. Young or old, experienced or recent to the faith, we are in this church together. We join together for worship week after week learning to speak and act and think and live and love as Christians.
This message isn’t just for our confirmation class; its for each and every single one of us gathered here today. We have a choice, we can choose to follow our own path, ignore the needs of those who bother us, and learn to take care of ourselves alone. We can move with the crowds and let our shouts from “hosanna” quickly change to “crucify” whenever we so choose. Or, we can march up to Calvary with our Lord carrying our own crosses. We can work together to bear fruit in God’s kingdom on earth. We can love the unlovable because God loves us.
“Who is this?” the crowds asked. Who is this strange man entering into the holy city to turn the world upside down? Who is this prophet who knows our innermost desires and listens to us when we feel alone? Who is this king who sits on the throne of a cross? Who is this priest that shares his bread and wine, body and blood, with and for us? Who is this incarnate God who died for the sins of the World? Who is this man that healed the sick, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked? Who is this teacher that shares all of his parables with us? Who is this Lord that humbles himself to be just like us? Who is this Savior that is completely unlike us?
If someone asked you, “Who is this?” how would you respond?
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
There is something tremendously powerful about baptizing and confirming youth who are old enough to make decisions and act on their own. Over the last two months it has been my distinct privilege to walk alongside some of my younger brothers and sisters in the faith as we made our way through differing confirmation classes. Every week I was surprised, astonished, and impressed with their willingness to participate and ask deep and meaningful questions.
Yesterday morning I stood before the congregation at St. John’s and confirmed seven youth. I called them individually to kneel before our church and invited their families to lay hands on the particular confirmand. As I placed a cross necklace over their head, and placed my hands on their shoulders, I confirmed each one of them in the love and grace of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a tremendously powerful experience and I noticed a number of people crying throughout the sanctuary as each youth was called forward.
As we surrounded the confirmands I felt, as the psalmist writes, that each youth was “taking refuge in the shadow of God’s wings.” Over the last few months they have feasted on God’s Word in God’s house learning about what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. It is my hope and prayer that they have truly come to know and see the light that comes from God.
Holy Week is a strange time in the life of Christians. Over the next few days we will be encouraged to remember Jesus’ final week as he made his way closer and closer to the tomb. On this Monday of Holy Week I hope that you can find yourselves held within the warm embrace and care of God’s wings. As you re-experience the depth of Jesus’ death, and the glory of the resurrection, I encourage you to feast on God’s Word, let it nourish your souls, and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Holy Week is our time to reconfirm our faith in the God who walked the streets of Jerusalem in preparation for death and life after death. These next days are an opportunity for us to rediscover the mighty acts of God in the world. This week encompasses our need to see and hear the story of God becoming like us to save us.
May God be with each of us as we feast with Jesus on Thursday, weep with him on Friday, and wait for him on Sunday.