This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 11.1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including love, books, ordination, dietary restrictions, the rule of threes, kingdom expansion, the praise of creation, funeral texts, tangible promises, commandments, Makoto Fujimura, and newness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The New Newness
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [C] (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the means of grace, clergy vestments, living the faith, motherhood, praise, worship music, creation imagery, Tolkien and the Ents, the Daily Office, parenting the Lord, Good News, and the Ascension in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christmas Clothes
2 Corinthians 5.6-17
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Most stories follow a common structure.
Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.
And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.
All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.
Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):
There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.
And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.
But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!
But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun.
Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.
Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.
There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]
There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).
There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.
Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.
Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.
Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.
How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?
Now, that’s an exciting beginning.
You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling.
TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
The end is where we start from.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”
Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”
Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”
That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?
Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.
We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!
Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.
The end is where we start from.
That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?
No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.
If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!
We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view.
That’s the end which is our beginning.
Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.
And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.
We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.
We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.
Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”
The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning.
And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.
But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well.
That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided.
The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.
And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.
Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.
“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.”
Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”
And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [B] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including older movies, promise keeping, Babel reimagined, different languages, the colors of creation, the gift of presence, holy hope, and diachronic pneumatology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
God speaks creation into existence.
That might sound heady and overly theological, but it’s true.
The witness of Genesis is not that God strung together sub-atomic particles to bring forth matter. Nor is it that God set up a tossed salad of building blocks in order to put the planetary bodies into place.
God spoke and it happened.
Much has been made about these words. Entire dissertations crowds the shelves at seminaries on these first verses in the Biblical record.
And yet, they are some that we avoid the most.
I can remember sitting in on a Bible Study with pastors from a small community in Western North Carolina when Genesis 1 was brought up. We politely alluded to the theological importance of particular verses, we showed off the little Hebrew we knew (if any), and pretty quickly the conversation came to a stand still. As the outsider, I felt it my responsibility to keep the study flowing so I asked, “Who was the last pastor to preach on Genesis 1, and what did you say about it?”
One by one the pastors sheepishly confessed that not a one of them had ever preached on Genesis 1.
Why? They didn’t know quite what to say about it.
As one now tasked with public proclamation on a regular basis, I empathize with the fear and trembling of my fellow pastors form the past. I know what it feels like to look at a text and scripture and feel as if there’s nothing I can say about it.
Which, after all, is kind of the whole point.
Preaching, at least faithful preaching, has little, if anything, to do with what a preacher has to say. Instead, it has everything to do with what God has to say through the preacher tasked with preaching.
Or, let me put it another way: Ellen Davis, noted Old Testament scholar, is known for saying that the best preachers are those who offer forgettable sermons. Their sermons are good precisely because they get out of the way to let the passage shine. At best, the hope should be that people don’t remember what was said from the pulpit, but the next time they come across the passage (whether reading at home or on another Sunday morning) they might hear something good, right, and true from the Lord.
So, here is my brief and hopefully forgettable thought about the beginning of scripture:
Words are far more powerful than we think they are. We might be taught that “sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true! I have plenty of friends for whom a nickname from the past still haunts them even today.
Words can build up and they can destroy. They can make us laugh, or cry, or rejoice, or lament.
Words can set us to action, or they can make us sit back and think.
Today there are three words that have set the nation on edge: Black Lives Matter.
Those words matter because they are true. Or, at the very least, they should be true. But to most white folks, black lives don’t matter. They’re seen as inferior, or dispensable, or burdensome.
We see images and videos of looting taking place across the nation and instead of joining together in a collective witness against the horrific racism that plagues this place, we offer trite words on social media about how this isn’t what Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve wanted.
But we’ve forgotten.
We’ve forgotten that when asked about looting Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Words are important. Speaking words brings new things into existence. But for my fellow white brothers and sisters, perhaps now is the time not to add our words to the fray. Instead, let us listen to those whom we have oppressed since the beginning of time. And maybe, maybe we’ll hear the Lord speak through them to us, bringing a new creation into existence.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent [A] (Ezekiel 37.1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8.6-11, John 11.1-45). Todd is a Baptist pastor serving Snow Hill Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Baptist autonomy, cross denominational friendships, dry bones, speaking creation, holding dirt, edgy professors, the songs of Frozen 2, the agency of God, the Gospel in the West Wing, fleshiness, and rejected for election. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Feeling Your Feelings
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.
But today it will be different.
This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.
To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.
What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.
Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.
And that’s okay.
After all, who can know the mind of God?
Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.
Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse.
One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.
And what do they share with one another?
Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.
The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.
A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.
A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.
I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.
And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster.
It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.
And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?
These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.
There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.
But, of course, we must speak.
We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening.
It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say.
Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.
There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.
There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.
There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.
Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.
These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.
To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.
And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.
For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.
And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.
Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.
Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most.
There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor.
But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments.
It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.
And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.
This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph.
God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.
Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.
Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.
I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.
Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Those words accomplish nothing.
Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.
If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.
God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.
Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.
Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable.
But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Our local Wegmans can be a little overwhelming depending on what time you go to the store. For instance, if you left from worship this morning, mere days before Thanksgiving, and went to the store we might have to send a rescue team to find you. There is a better than good chance that today the store will be filled to the brim with individuals and families making sure to stock up on everything necessary for the once a year meal on Thursday.
A few weeks ago, right in the middle of a peak moment while the store was jam packed, I was pushing around my son in a cart trying desperately to get what we needed and then to get out of there. We were going up and down aisles, throwing things into the cart, and my head was constantly darting back and forth hoping to find the next item.
And the store was loud. There were other frantic parents banging into carts trying to get around a corner, on top of the PA system piping in music that should’ve stayed in 1987, and even Instacart employees who buy your groceries for you so you don’t have to.
It was in the midst of that loudness, in the midst of the frantic searching, that I noticed my son was saying something under his breath to himself.
For what its worth – this is a fairly common experience. We can be anywhere around anyone when he will spontaneously break in song, usually something like “Jesus Loves Me.” Or I’ll be sitting in the other room and I’ll hear him playing with all sorts of toys and having them engage in a conversation together.
So when he first started talking in the shopping cart I didn’t pay much attention until I heard the actual words he was saying…
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”
“Where did you learn that?” I asked.
To which he replied, “Dad, I learned it at school. We say it every morning.”
My son is three years old.
I share this story not because I want to offend or ostracize any among us regarding our potential affinity for the pledge of allegiance, but I do want to call into question how the pledge has become something so determinate in our lives against, and perhaps in spite of, Jesus our Lord.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when, for at least the last hundred years, churches affirm the Lordship of Christ and how our truest allegiance belongs with him over and against anything and anyone else. As a liturgical Sunday it began after the wake of the Great War during a time when Christians needed to remember what it was they really believed in the hope that we would never resort to such horrific violence toward our brothers and sister ever again.
Spoiler warning: It didn’t work.
And yet we still mark this day differently than other Sundays because the Lordship of Christ really does reorient our priorities, our proclivities, and even our politics.
It is a time for us to confront one of the most important truths of the gospel: If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.
Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: If Jesus is Lord, then America is not.
Paul writes to the church in Colossae with this kind of distinction in mind. Now, what was read for us might feel lofty and gratuitous: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” But Paul wrote to the early church not with hopes of academic pandering. Instead he used words and ideas to speak directly to problems in the lives of real people struggling to understand what a life of faith is all about.
Whenever we confront new ideas, new world-views, whether we lived in the first century or we live today, the temptation is to take the unfamiliar and fit it into what we already know. It’s how the church, time and time again, takes Jesus outside the content of the Good News he brought and declared through his life, and instead uses him like a bludgeon to beat back our theological or political enemies.
This is perhaps best exemplified with a bumper sticker I once saw that said, “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”
That bumper sticker is fundamentally unintelligible from a Christian perspective.
For some strange reason, *cough* sin *cough*, we want Jesus to be a lot of things for us – a teacher who teaches the perspective we already have, a healer who heals those on our side while ignoring those on across the line, an ethical guide who affirms our current behavior, and even a political wedge so long as we’re right in the end and the others are wrong.
And, at times, Jesus is those things. But when he is those things it is for the Kingdom, and not for our own opinions.
Today we declare that among the many things we want Jesus to be, that he is forever our King, and that makes all the difference.
This is why Paul is so inclined to begin and end everything with Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Paul will not let the world set the terms for the church because he knows and believes its actually the other way around. He writes about how we, those who follow the Lord, are transferred from one kingdom to another. In this new kingdom everything is different – the rules are different, the ruler is different, and all the assumptions about what is good and right and true are different.
Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings us into a new kingdom and yet we are forever trying to bring him over into one of our own. We cherrypick verses, or isolate moments in scripture, in order to give meaning and validity to whatever we already think is important.
But if Jesus is Lord then it means he’s the one who tells us what’s important.
Paul proudly and boldly proclaims that becoming a Christian is like being dropped into a foreign land. Everything we thought we knew gets thrown out the window as we learn a new language, and new customs, and even eat new food. Being a Christian is not about fitting Jesus into our present ways of thinking – Christ has kicked us out of the kingdoms of our own desires and says you’re stuck in this kingdom with me.
And in Christ’s kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.
I’ve noted a few times recently that it often doesn’t help the church to just spend time addressing what’s wrong in other churches. And I want to own that – I know that. But sometimes we have to know what’s wrong in order to know what is right.
If the church tells us that we need to put America first, then it is not God’s church.
If the church tells us that some people are in and some people are out, then it is not God’s church.
If the church tells us that any politician or any leader or any celebrity is more important than the least of these, then it is not God’s church.
We can only know what is good, right, and true because we know who Jesus is. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, makes the invisible God visible. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is before all things and all things are held together in him, by him, and for him. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is first.
Jesus is first.
If we believe that were true, could you imagine how differently we would live and move and breathe in this world? How many things would we toss out forever? What divisions would we destroy?
Or, if we can’t quite wrap our heads around that thought exercise, let us just rest on this for a moment – Do we really put Jesus first in whatever we are doing and whatever we are talking about?
That kind of thinking can get us in trouble with the world. Its that kind of thinking that calls into question the practices and habits that form us. Its what made me stop when I heard my son saying the pledge of allegiance.
It made me stop because as a Christian, my first allegiance is to God.
Grace is not about adjusting the words of Jesus to fit into the mold of the world. The grace of God is about judgment, because our King doesn’t rule from a throne or from behind a desk in an oval office. Our King rules from the cross!
The Kingdom of God is a kingdom the world doesn’t want because it makes a difference, and that difference means that we will be different because God has made us different.
The problem in the church today is that we want to seem like everybody else.
God, thankfully, won’t let us have our way.
On Christ the King Sunday, more than almost any other Sunday in the year, we confront the wonder and beauty of the new thing God has done in the world through God’s Son. In the person of Jesus Christ a new creation has taken place and a new Kingdom has been established. And in that kingdom, we are made to be gentle even in a cruel world, we are made to call out that acts of cruelty that result in even more people being little, last, least, lost, and dead.
And calling those things into question will make the world want to kill us.
It’s why Jesus was killed.
And that’s the whole thing right there. Beyond all talk of allegiance and behavior and worship. At the end of the day we have a King who died for us, who showed us that power comes not with militaristic might, but with meekness – a King who made peace through the blood of his cross.
Advent begins next week. Most of us like to imagine that Advent is that special time set apart for us to get ready for Christmas. It’s why the stores are already decorated and the radio stations are already playing the songs.
But Advent isn’t about getting ready for Christmas.
Advent, strangely enough, is about the end.
It is about what happens when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Advent shows us glimpses of a time we cannot yet imagine when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of the Lord who reigns forever and ever.
Which leaves us with one final question on this Christ the King Sunday – To whom will we pledge our allegiance? Amen.
For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
“What’s the difference between dominion and domination?” I asked the question before the Sunday School class with curiousity about how they might respond. We’ve been working our way through Diana Butler Bass’ book Grounded which address the particularity of God’s creation and humanity’s responsibility to be good stewards of this gift. At first the room was quiet as people put their thoughts together and then they started flooding out:
“Dominion is like a kind a gracious king who cares about the kingdom, whereas domination like a ruthless ruler who does whatever they want.”
“Dominion means responsibility and domination means destruction.”
We listened to one another and then took it a step further to contemplate whether we’ve cared for the earth with dominion or domination. We shared stories of pristine wilderness experiences and incredible natural beauty. However, we also shared anecdotes of ruined soil, toxic water, and tainted air.
In Genesis God’s gives humanity dominion over creation. We were given the responsibility to care for the planet with love and devotion. And our lives are such that today we are intimately connected with the dirt beneath our feet, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, even if we take them all for granted.
But we don’t care for creation simply because God told us to.
On a primal and fundamental level we affirm that dominion first belong to the Lord, and that God rules over all nations. There might be days when this seems strange, and even paradoxical (particularly when we see images of atrocities from all across the world) but this world belongs to God first and only secondarily to us.
Imagine, if you can, that your best friend in the world offered to let you borrow his or her car, or maybe a house to stay in… Would you not take care of it even better than your own? Would the thought of his or her generosity be such that it would propel you to be an incredible steward of the gift rather than taking it for granted?
The earth is a precious, and at times fragile, gift. And, more often than not, we treat it terribly. We rarely think twice before flicking a piece of trash out the window while we’re driving, we take our clean drinking water for granted, and we assume that because a particular item of food is available at the grocery store that we are entitled to it.
But we are not entitled to anything.
This earth is a delicate gift offered to us with an expectation of responsibility. Just as we have been given dominion (not domination) over the earth, we remember that God has dominion over us.