Occupied

Matthew 21.1-11

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 through 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 others 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.”

The city was occupied.

The occupiers came through once a year with a big military parade to remind the occupied that they were, in fact, occupied. And they were smart about it, they knew that the religious festivals in the spring were a time when people got all ramped up, so they prepared to make a sign of strength at the same time to, as they put it, keep the peace.

And so it came to pass, early one Sunday morning, the roads were cleared as the citizens of the city hid behind the curtains in their homes, the parade began. The weight of the tanks broke up the smooth city streets, the ICBMs were pulled behind countless trailers, and scores of soldiers marched in step while shouting out their maniacal military mantras. 

It was terrifying.

And it was meant to be.

On the other side of the city, another parade was starting, though this was was different in every way imaginable.

The Teacher, that’s what they called him, had sent two of his followers ahead very early in the morning with the simple instructions to find something that would help them get into the city. They searched in vain, knowing that many were afraid of the comings and goings on the other side of the city with the displays of violence, but eventually they came across an abandoned tricycle sitting on its side in the front yard of what appeared to be a vacant house. So they took it and brought it to the Teacher.

Perfect.

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Hours later, while word of the military parade spread from house to house, the Teacher rode into the occupied city striding atop his tricycle, with pink and purple streamers coming out of handlebars. It was a richly symbolic act, entering from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner of those on the other side. Instead of riding on that which kept people afraid, the teacher came with the anti-war parade – it was a mockery of the occupiers’ intimidation and it was triumphant.

As he rode and swerved left and right through the streets, Twitter was ablaze with the news that the Teacher was finally in the city, and droves of people left the shelter of their homes to get a glimpse of the one who they believed was coming to deliver them. The numbers grew and grew, and the fervor swept over them as they took off their jackets and waved them high in the air. They even started taking flowers out of the ground and placed them on the road like a royal carpet.

They shouted things like, “The King is here! Finally! Save us!!!”

The further he made it into the city, the louder the crowds became, and the people were in turmoil – between the two parades that Sunday morning they knew not who would win.

Everyone was so preoccupied with the occupation and the signs and the singing that no one noticed the Teacher’s face, because the longer he rode on his tricycle, the more he cried. He wept knowing that he was enter as the prince of peace, and yet within the week those very crowds that shouted for salvation would also be the ones begging for his execution.

On Monday, the Teacher made his way to City Hall with other citizens. Knowing all that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the crazy man with the expectation that things were finally about the change. He walked slowly, taking in the sights of the marginalized being pushes even further toward the margins, and the bankers lending out money with exorbitant interest rates. 

For three years he had been going through the surrounding territories berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and the outcast, he once told a yuppie to sell everything and give it away, and that Monday morning, before anyone realized it, the Teacher grabbed a nearby lamppost, pulled it right out of the ground, and started swinging. He destroyed the tables and the stands and the signs of what was happening in the heart of the city, and the crowds stood in shock.

The elite and powerful, those who benefited from the occupation, now had their attention on the Teacher. It was one thing to have a crowd cheering for a man on a tricycle, but to disrupt the economic scheme that was putting money in their pockets was something else entirely. 

Something had to be done.

On Tuesday, the Teacher went back to City Hall and he began to teach in the open air. If the people were excited to see his entry into the city, they were now even more eager to hear what he had to say having thrown out those who represented all of the economic disparity. Of course, it wasn’t just the poor and downtrodden that gathered to listen, some of the religious authorities and the elite were there too and they kept demanding to know who he thought he was to speak with such authority.

The Teacher spoke in riddles, telling stories about one thing that were pointing at something else. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful were actually the weak and, worst of all, he called them hypocrites.

He accused them again and again of neglecting to honor the very things they talked about all the time, how they were the ones truly responsible for the occupiers entering year after year, and that no matter what they did or said or believed, there was nothing they could do to stop him.

The Teacher had quite a following at this point, he had taken away the means of economic injustice from those in power and now he was calling them vipers. They tried their best to trap him in his words, but went on as if they weren’t even there.

On Wednesday the Teacher left the city and traveled to a nearby hill where he continued to teach. Some of his followers made comments about the beauty of the city from their high vantage point, but he responded by telling them that all of it was coming down, not one stone would be left.

He talked about his new order, one in which those would be blessed who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, befriended the lonely, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick. 

He pointed at the children in their midst and said that unless the adults started acting like the kids, none of them would have a spot in the new kingdom. And he ended with his favorite catchphrase about the first being last and the last being first.

For those at the bottom of all things, this sounded like Good News, but for those in power in the city, this was too much.

On Thursday, the Teacher continued to teach and gather with his followers, but it was time for the religious festival so he retreated to an apartment in the city with his closest friends. They told stories about the past, what had led each of them to where they were. They shared a few bottles of wine, and kept partying late into the night.

But before it was all said and done, the Teacher took a nearby loaf of bread and said, “Hey, this is me, and I’m going to give myself for you. So when you eat it, remember what I did.” And then he took a nearby cup and said, “This is my blood, I’m pouring it out for you and the world. Do this whenever you drink to remember me.” They feasted and celebrated, but one of the friends left through the backdoor when no one was looking. He loved the Teacher, but some of what he said had gone too far, and he was going to put it to a stop before they were all killed.

Later they traveled to a nearby garden, the Teacher urged his friends to stay awake but one by one they fell asleep. So he knelt on the ground and he prayed about all that was going to take place. The last thing he said in his prayer was, “Let your will be done.”

And as he looked up from his posture of prayer, the betrayer arrived with soldiers. They quickly rushed into the garden and arrested the Teacher. The dozing followers ran off in fear not knowing what was about to happen. 

On Friday the Teacher was brought before the occupying Governor, the one who arrived at the city in the military parade. The soldiers and the leaders demanded that the Teacher needed to be publicly executed. But the Governor, strangely enough, could find no fault with the man. So he decided to bring the Teacher before a crowd of people and offer them a choice. They could free the Teacher, or a leader of the terrorist rebellion who was responsible for destruction across the city. 

The same people who were on the road less than a week before shouting “Save us!” now shouted with reckless abandon, “Execute him!” So the leader of the rebellion was freed, and the Teacher was sentenced to death.

Soldiers stationed nearby beat and whipped the Teacher right to the point of death and, to mock him, they covered him with a three piece suit and a striped power tie. They forced him to carry the instrument of his death, a noose, up to the top of a hill for all eyes to see. As the soldiers strung up the line from the highest branch on the highest tree, the Teacher looked out over the scene and said loud enough for people to hear, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.” 

And then they placed the rope around his neck, and pulled until he was hanging in the air. And the Teacher died.

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with Hosanna and ends with Crucify. It begins with life and ends with death. 

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Typically, I resist the temptation to tell the whole story of Jesus’ final week on Palm Sunday because I want to encourage folk to come to services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But, knowing this year is a strange year with the calls for Social Distancing, I know not who will be able to join us online for worship on Thursday and Friday and I can’t help but think that if all we encounter today is the crowds waving their branches with their Hosannas and their hope, then Easter doesn’t make sense. 

Or, to put it another way, why did Jesus go from being loved to being dead? 

The passion week, no matter how it’s told, refuses to let us imagine it as some sort of spiritual or ethereal dilemma. It is fleshy and tactile and real. It takes place in time, in our time. It compels us to encounter the truth of the incarnation, that God chose in Christ to come and dwell among us. And even more, it forces us to come to grips with the fact that we nailed him to a tree.

I return again to the question of Jesus’ death. It is strange that Jesus was killed considering how we so often talk about him inside and outside of the church. Jesus who just wants us to love each other a little bit more. Jesus who just wants us to engage in active listening. Jesus who just wants us to spend more time in our Bibles and more time in prayer. Why would anyone kill anyone pushing that kind of message?

Why did Jesus have to die and why did he have to die on a cross? Well, because that’s the way the Romans executed those deemed a threat. Hang them high so all can see what happens if you challenge the powers and the principalities. 

Why did Jesus have to die? He wasn’t what we wanted.

We don’t crucify people anymore – we’re too dignified and respectable for that. Instead we isolate them in prison, we demonize them on Social Media, and we berate them behind closed doors. We can’t stand those who would call into question the practices and policies that put money in our pockets, we stifle anyone sniffing around our firstness and rightness and presumed righteousness. And we certainly don’t want anyone to ever call us hypocrites.

Or, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.

Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love. 

Holy Week isn’t about us. It’s about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of Jesus’ death we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can to do save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the city under occupation and in the end occupies our place on the cross. 

The crowds demanded their salvation, and Jesus gave it to them by giving himself. 

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Amen. 

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God – Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51.1-3

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 

“I know all about that.”

I looked up from my book toward in the man sitting next to me. He had bandages all over his face and he was pointing at the cover of my book.

When God Is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor.

I was trying to mind my own business at the dermatologist, just preparing for a routine exam of my pale and mole-y body, I didn’t even wear a clergy collar because I just wanted to be like everybody else, but I didn’t think about the book I was reading.

So I looked into the eyes of the man and I said, “What do you mean?”

“I know all about God being silent.”

And, knowing that listening is often better than speaking, I just kept looking into his eyes and waited for him to continue.

And then he did.

I learned about the man. About his life, about his family, about his struggles, about his skin cancer that just keeps coming back. About how many times he’s pleaded with God to just give him a sign, to just say anything at all. He kept talking and talking until they called his name and he left me sitting there in the waiting room, waiting for my own appointment, in silence.

I hear this a lot, considering what I do for a living. I hear about God’s silence, about the absence of God from one’s life. I hear about suffering and loneliness and fear and, in particular, the silence of death. People want to know what their loved ones long dead are now doing. They want reassurance that, even though they hear nothing, God is somewhere still speaking.

In other words, they want to hear about life without having to think about death.

And they, whoever they are, are us.

We all do it. 

Consciously and unconsciously.

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Whether we’re lying awake at night frantically willing ourselves not to think about the end, or we’re watching yet another commercial desperately attempting to convince us that we can make it out of this life alive.

I was sitting with a family one time preparing a funeral and the daughter of the woman now dead said, “We really want this to be a celebration of life.”

“Sure,” I muttered, thinking we could move on to selecting hymns or particular scriptures, but she continued.

“In fact, we would prefer it if you didn’t mention how she died, or even that she’s really dead at all. Come to think of it, we’d really like it if you could talk about her as if she were still alive with us right now.”

There is a time to live and there is a time to die, as the scripture goes. And we’d prefer to have to the first bit without the latter.

I wonder if the reason we feel so afraid of death, the reason we pretend the dead aren’t dead, is because the silence of death is so overwhelming. We go from having someone with whom we can converse and then suddenly that conversation is cut off forever. We don’t know what to do with something we can’t control, and we therefore fear it with every fiber of our being.

We fear death.

We used to fear God.

I’ve been preaching and gathering together with Christians on Ash Wednesday for the better part of a decade, and I find it to be one of the most incredible and strange things we do. Ash Wednesday, though hyper focused on our identity as sinners in the hands of God, is a time when we are actually encouraged to do some navel gazing.

Every other day of the church year feels different. As the oft quoted line goes, “The church is the only institution in the world that exists for the sake of outsiders.” That’s probably true, but today is different. Today, it really is about us.

It’s about how we know we’re going to die, and how God is going to make something out of the nothing of our deaths, and how God will still speak even in the silence of our ends.

But that’s not an easy thing to handle, and its why fewer and fewer people attend services like this one, whether its at 7 in the morning or 7 in the evening. We don’t want to look at sin and death any more than we have to, but we have to do it. Otherwise we run the risk of perpetual self-deception, in which our ears become so stopped up that we can’t hear the voice of the Lord that still speaks in spite of us.

Like the psalmist, today we come before the throne of the Lord and confess that God has a case against us and we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Lord. 

As Christians this rests at the heart of who we are and whose we are – we cannot ignore the condition of our condition, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we are better than anyone else, we are sinners resting in the hands of a loving God.

That we can call God a loving God is what makes all the difference. For, it is in the same moment that we can truly acknowledge our brokenness that we also begin to see God as the One who offers mercy to us even though we don’t deserve it.

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While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Not before we were sinners, or after we were sinners, but in the midst of our sin. 

Even the psalmist gets it: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

That is the prayer of someone who knows that there is hope in spite of feeling hopeless, who knows that God’s compassion far exceeds our own, and who knows that grace is always greater than our sin. Always.

I waited my turn, all the while thinking of the man and what he said. I pondered over what I would’ve said had his name not been called, and I kept mulling over the different scriptures that speak about God’s silence in the Bible. I even pulled out my phone to look up a passage about Elijah and the still small voice, when I realized that the man was finished and was walking back into the waiting room. But instead of walking toward the door and leaving us all behind, he walked back over to me, sat down and said, “Thanks for listening earlier. I feel a lot better.” Then he shook my hand and left.

His gratitude for my silent listening was a reminder for me that whenever God might feel silent, perhaps God’s silence is due to God’s listening. That, rather than interrupting and knocking us down a peg or two (something we all deserve) God is content to listen to whatever we might hurl at God. God can handle our anger and our fear and our frustration and even our sin because God is holy.

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In a few moments we are going to pray together. As we pray and reflect on the overwhelming love of God we are going to confess our lack of love. While we remember Jesus’ willingness to come and take away our sins, we are going to confess those sins for which Jesus came. As we acknowledge the unconditional grace of God, we are going to confess the conditions we place on one another all the time. 

And while we do all of that, lifting up contradictory elements of who we are and who God is, it will become our worship. God has done a remarkable thing for us. We don’t need to lie to ourselves or to others, we don’t have to compete with unattainable moral expectations, we don’t have to pretend we are something that we are not.

We are Christians, we can be who we are and can be seen as the sinners we are, because God will not remain silent.

God speaks his Son into the world who comes to be the judged Judge in our place. He takes each and every one of our sins, nails them to the cross, and refuses to evaluate us by our mistakes. God reminds us today, and every day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. 

But God is in the business of raising the dead, which means that dust isn’t the end. Prayer.

Get Your Ash In Church (And Leave It There)

Devotional:

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

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Today is Ash Wednesday.

Christians across the globe are gathering together to hear words that the church has heard for centuries: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those are the words I intoned this morning as I marked the gathered body with ashes, and they will be the words I will use tonight. And, God willing, they will be the words I use every Ash Wednesday until the end.

But what happens after the church leaves the church with those ashen crosses on their foreheads is a strange and bewildering thing.

I, for one, left church this morning and then drove my son to his Preschool. Like most mornings we patiently waited outside the door of his classroom, only this time 3 of his classmates approached me and, independently of one another, made comments about the smudge on my forehead while their parents tried to pull them away.

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On other Ash Wednesdays I have been approached in grocery stores and on street corners by inquisitive people as to what in the world happened to my head.

But there’s a good case to be made that before we leave the church with our ashen crosses, we should wash them off.

Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Of course we can leave the ashes on our heads until they naturally fade away, but if we keep them just so we can be seen by others for our faithfulness, then we have failed to take the words of Jesus seriously.

My fried Teer Hardy puts it this way, “Wash your ash today. Let us not allow the world see our fasting as an attempt for pious righteousness but rather let our fasting be a witness to the judgement that was due to us but because of Christ’s sacrificial life we receive the justification we do not deserve.”

Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is a unique time in the life of the church when, rather than focusing outwardly, we are encouraged to look inward, to consider the condition of our condition, and to recognize our absolute dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ.

So get your ash in church, and leave it there.

The rest is up to Jesus.

We Are (Not) Crucified

1 Corinthians 2.1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do not speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 

I was standing in line, along with everyone else, waiting for my chance to pass through customs. We were on our way to Guatemala to spend a week working in the remote highland area with an organization called HSP. The group had packed accordingly, we had read all the right scriptures that compelled us to go and love on our neighbors to the south, and honestly we were just really excited. We were college and high school students, and for some of us this would be our first time going out of the country.

It was the 4th of July, and you could tell from the sheer amount of red, white, and blue adorning just about everyone leaving the US. We joked in line and the buzz of anticipation was palpable in the air. I, just like most everyone else, was wearing a shirt with an American Flag prominently displayed on the front when I was my turn to step forward and hand over my passport.

I patiently smiled as the TSA worker looked at my picture, looked at me, looked at my ticket, and then looked at my shirt. Her gaze promptly returned to the desk in front of her, and without even looking up she said, “Just a piece of advice – I’d change my shirt if I were you.”

I stood in confused silence – I mean, why would I need to change my shirt?

And, as if reading my mind, the TSA agent said, “You’re traveling to a place where that flag doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Bible-and-Flag

Reading from the Apostle Paul in worship can be a difficult endeavor. His sentences tend to drag along and he is quite the fan of repeating himself. And taking the time to look at his argument, if we want to call it that, week after week after week is, possibly, an ill-advised proposition.

And yet, here we are.

Today, many of us, if not most of us, face the unenviable task of coming to grips with the fact that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel stories were recorded. That is, the earliest churches that sprung out around the Mediterranean had a better than good chance of meeting or reading from Paul long before they got a chance to hear or read from the evangelists.

Therefore, for those of us who think we can get closer to Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, that’s all good and fine. But to elevate the gospels as much as we do does a disservice to the work of Paul.

And, it’s not easy. I mean, Paul’s letters contain almost no references to the teachings of Jesus. He doesn’t recount the beauty of the Prodigal Son, or hammer home the words from the Sermon on the Mount, or even talk about the miracle of feeding 5,000 by the sea. Instead, it is the word of the cross that coveys the everything Paul wishes to share. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” was the message that reshaped reality and turned the world upside down.

That’s not to say that the stories of Jesus, those he told and those he lived out, are of non-importance. They are absolutely pivotal. And yet, we often read Paul today as if he took the simple messages of Jesus and complicated them into these opaque and intellectual arguments. When, in fact, the truth is quite the opposite: Paul distilled the gospel in a way that we would not have known without him.

A small, but potent example: Jesus tells the disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. If that’s all we’ve got then woe to the rich, because this is as good as its going to get. But Paul is adamant, throughout the letters, the Christ dies for us while we are sinners, that every single one of our sins are nailed to the cross whether we’re rich or poor, and the justification of the ungodly (that’s all of us) is the whole thing.

The work of Christ on the cross then becomes the lens by which the gospels come into focus, and not necessarily the other way around.

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Knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified is no easy thing to do. It wasn’t for Paul and it’s not easy for us. We are constantly in search of signs of demonstrated power so as to know where our allegiances should reside. We look up to the healthy and the wealthy as if they are more important and holier than the sick and the poor. We are so persuaded by, to use Paul’s words, the rulers of this age rather than the one who came to overthrow the powers and the principalities that compete for our attention.

I stood in the airport, displaying my red, white, and blue, and right before I boarded the flight, I took it off and put something else on. I spent the following week working with and among people whom I otherwise never would have seen, and I learned more than I could have dreamed.

Sure, I learned a lot about what it means to be a faithful disciple, and what it means to put faith into action, but the thing I learned the most about was what it meant to be an American. At least, what it meant to be an American to those who are not. 

That week in the Guatemala opened up my eyes to the long and sordid history of the United States with the government and civil war in Guatemala. I discovered how our country, in the name of freedom, instituted a new government in their country, assuming it would make for a more favorable relationship between the countries. But I also discovered how ravaged families and communities were by those actions, how many young men were indiscriminately murdered in a short period of time leaving behind a country that is still suffering the consequences of ours.

For me, it was a painful moment of transformation. For, in those conversation and interactions, in the tears and in the stories, I realized that, by the world’s standards, I am a citizen of empire. The country of my home and the country of my birth has bullied the rest of the world into recognizing our supposed superiority such that I was encouraged to remove my patriotic teeshirt before leaving the country.

In other words, I am exactly who Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 2. And so is every average American Christian.

We might enjoy spending our time bickering among ourselves about what President Trump said during the State of the Union, or Nancy Pelosi ripping up his speech, or who really won the Iowa Caucus, or any other number of things, all the while people across the world are living entirely different lives. 

How we carry ourselves in the world, whether at home or abroad, makes a tremendous difference because, whether we realize it or not, the Red, White, and Blue says a lot more about us than we think.

Even a sentence like that is troubling and confounding these days because the “us” in the “says more about us” is almost undefinable. As soon as we feel lumped into something we feel like we shouldn’t, we throw up our arms as if to say, “That’s not me!” And we very quickly and rapidly move into a posture of rigid defense and we stop up our ears from having to hear anything contrary to what we might think or even believe.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the symbols of patriotism in the United States. Proudly displaying flags and colors and even documents like the Declaration of Independence are all fine. Except, for Christians, those patriotic symbols seem to mean more to us than the symbol of our faith: the cross. 

And it makes total sense. The cross is an ugly and deadly thing. We don’t want to be bombarded with thoughts of death and suffering and so we prefer to worship and idolize other symbols – symbols that appear more simple.

The cross is anything but simple.

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We are forever trying to reduce the complex questions of life into these manageable and simple solutions as if there really is a solution to every single problem in the world. And whoever comes up with the easy formulas for success are the people we worship the most. We do it with politicians we do it with preachers we do it with just about anybody.

If the solution can fit nicely into a tweet or a soundbite on the news then its good enough for the rest of us. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are the masters of fate, and we therefore have nothing to be afraid of.

Except, it’s not true.

We are not in control. Fate is fickle. And there is plenty to be afraid of. 

The cross always hangs on the horizon, an ever present reminder that when things get tough, when things get too complicated, we all too often resort to violence and power and control in order to put things back the way we think they should go.

We did it with Jesus on the cross.

We did it with Guatemala.

We’re still doing it as a nation, and we’re all, in some way, shape, or form doing it in our own lives.

We think that it’s all up to us, and we’ve forgotten that the cross also stands to show us how Christ is already in the business of putting us back together, in ways we’d rather not if it were up to us.

But thanks be to God that’s its not up to us, because if it were all we’d achieve is more of the same instead of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. If it were up to us we’d only associate ourselves with the people who already think like us, and talk like us, and even look likes us instead of being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that only have one thing in common: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians because he was devastated by how quickly they had fallen away from the complicated message of the cross. They had factionalized around different leaders that only told them what they already wanted to hear, instead of hearing the good news that sounds too good to be true: Christ died for us while we were sinners, which means we cannot remain as we were.

The church was not and is not meant to be like the world – It is a counter-cultural endeavor in which the powers and principalities and empires of this world are called into question. Knowing nothing but Jesus and him crucified is but another way of articulating a different way of being in the world.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is crucified so that we don’t have to be. We don’t have to mount the hard wood of the cross because Christ has already done it for us. We don’t have to suffer the indifference of the world because Christ has come to conquer the world. 

Paul implored those first Christians to open their eyes and ears, to recognize how their beliefs and patterns and habits communicate what they valued and what they worshipped.

Today, how we live and move in the world with others makes all the difference as we, like Paul, strive to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Everything else is secondary. Amen.

We Are (Not) Scandalized

1 Corinthians 1.18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sister: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 

I worked hard on the sermon.

I mean, I worked really hard on the sermon. 

At one point I had, on my desk, three different commentaries, a collection of Christian poetry, two Biblical atlases, and my Greek New Testament. I must’ve written three versions of the sermon before I finally felt like it was complete before and I saved the document and patiently waited for Sunday.

And Sunday came.

I walked down the center aisle tightly gripping the sermon in my hand while the congregation sang around me. I sat dutifully throughout the service, listening to the different lay people playing their parts, and when the time came to preach I ascended into the pulpit, took a deep breath, and preached my heart out.

I used my hand emphatically, lowered my voice when I wanted everyone to hang on the words, and I ended with as large and as booming of a voice as I could muster.

When I sat down I had to wipe my sleeve across my forehead because I worked up a sweat.

After the service, I stood in the narthex waiting to shake hands with those in attendance that morning and was feel rather proud of my effort. 

A tall gray-haired gentleman was the first to walk over that morning, and I’ll never forget what he said, “Son, that sounded nice and all, but you used too many of them big seminary words and not a one of us understood not one thing you said.”

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There’s something interesting going on in the budding Corinthian Christian community. Sure, Paul’s already proclaimed grace upon all who receive his letter, and he’s warned them about breaking off into different factions, but here, before we even get to the second chapter of the letter he addresses what we might call, status consciousness. And notice, I’m still falling prey to the temptation to use bigger words than necessary!

It’s not just about who each of the early disciples follow, but to which class each person belongs. (As if people belong to certain classes)

In our minds when we think of class divisions today we rightly consider economic disparities, or even geographical placements, but one that we often ignore (to our detriment) is the division of education. There were some who proudly proclaimed their educational prowess while putting others down and it was starting to create major rifts in the community. 

“I know more than you do,” or “I’m smarter than you,” become more than childish attacks and take on a whole new version of the in crowd and the out crowd. 

Whereas Jesus comes to show us how we were once all in the out crowd, and we are all now in the in crowd.

Paul puts it this way: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debtor of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

In other words, “What makes you think you’re so smart? None of this is smart! God has made the wisdom of the world into foolishness! The religious elite call for signs and the secular folk want wisdom, but we proclaim a crucified man, dead on the cross. This will always be a stumbling block to the religious and foolishness to those outside the faith.

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Now the challenge before us, regarding this text, is nearly impossible – imagine, if you can, having never heard of Jesus or his cross. Imagine, challenging as this might seem, that you encounter someone in your life, perhaps a friend or a neighbor or even someone in your family and they tell you, “The most powerful being in all of the creation, chose to become like us, to dwell among us, and then when the right time came he was executed for all to see, and then three days later he rose from the dead.”

It’s difficult to take a step back from all of this, from a sanctuary adorned with cross, and hymns with language about the cross, and to consider how confounding the cross is. 

Or, to put it in a Corinthian context, it is scandalous.

That’s the word for us today, that’s the thing we cannot ignore, how scandalous it all is. Our English Bibles, of course, render it as foolishness a la the foolishness of the Gentiles, but in Greek the word is SKANDALON. 

Even in their boasting, those that had reason to boast, Paul reminds them that all of their bragging is for nothing because the word of the cross, the truth of Christ’s work, has nothing to do with our own intelligence, or our own wisdom, or our own work.

That scandal is difficult to approach – it is challenging because everything about the crucifixion from the details about the responsible parties to the words offered by those who witnessed the event carry little to no redeeming religious features. 

It is not an uplifting moment even though Jesus is lifted up. Which is strange when we consider just how much of our faith and all that we do as Christians is tied up with inspirational uplift and attempts at making us feel better whether we want to or not. 

So much of what I learned in school, the schooling that was required for me to become a pastor, was all about speaking the right words to make things right in your lives. It was about pushing lay people, you people, to be more faithful. It was about helping each of you to see all that you needed to do in order to find Jesus.

And yet, the scandal of the cross is scandalous precisely because it stands as a stark reminder that we are messed up, and Christ come to us anyway.

It is a reminder that no matter how smart we are or how dumb we are, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how virtuous or sinful, Christ comes to us anyway.

A few years back one of my dearest friends and a fellow United Methodist pastor (and godfather to my son), made it through 8 rounds of chemotherapy to treat his incurable cancer. The suffering involved was such that when he was told that they could no longer see any signs of his tumor he didn’t believe them. That is, until they reminded him that the cancer was still in his bone marrow and would never full be gone. 

He would, and still does, rely on what they call maintenance chemo in hopes that the cancer will be kept at bay.

In the wake of receiving the good news that sounded like bad news but was actually good news Jason, that’s his name, articulated something strange about the whole experience.

He said that even though learning he had cancer meant mourning the loss of the life that he had and the loss of the future he envisioned, so too, paradoxically, finding out that he wasn’t going to die quite yet meant mourning the loss of the life he’d found while living with cancer.

Basically, he kind of enjoyed having the cancer.

As crazy as that sounds, there was a reason for feeling that way. You see, while undergoing those months of chemotherapy and the constant fear about losing his life before he expected to, he discovered that he had his theology backwards. For far too long he had believed, and to some degree articulated, a faith that required people to grow closer to God, a faith in which Jesus suffers for our sins and that’s it.

But what Jason discovered in his cancer was that Jesus joins us in our suffering, that its not up to us to grow closer to God because God is already closer to us than we are to ourselves, and that no matter what we’re going through, no matter how bleak or frightening or terrifying, God is there in it.

In church terms we call it A Theology of the Cross.

Paul would call it the scandal of the cross. 

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Today we might talk about how the cross is a sign of how Jesus saves us from our sins, but what Paul, and Jason, would have us consider is that the cross is where the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ meets us.

The cross is where God meets us in our own lives. In all of our suffering, in all of our sins, in our shames and pains. 

And that is downright scandalous because it rubs against so much of what we’ve been taught to think and speak. If we’ve left church feeling guilty for all the things we should have done, for all the things we left undone, then we’ve missed the scandal of the cross. The scandal is that we don’t have to do anything. Because Christ does the everything we could not and would not do for ourselves.

And even more scandalous is the fact that God in Christ continues to meet us not in the mountaintops of our achievements, not in our theology degrees or perfectly performed prayers, not in our miraculous morality, but in the moments that frighten us and scare us the most.

Paul writes to the Corinthians in hopes of knocking them down a peg or two, he points to the scandal of the cross and reminds those who call themselves Christians that we really have nothing to boast about. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. No amount of education or status or health can fix that fundamental problem within us. Therefore, confronting the scandal of the cross compels us to reorient ourselves into the shadow of the cross. 

All the things we lift up, right education, economic success, perfect health and perfect bodies, have nothing to do with the scandal of the cross. It simply is what it is.

The cross has always been the focus of Christianity. The cross embodies all of what makes the Good News good. And for as long as it has been the object of our worship, it has also caused offense and has been scandalous. Here within the context of our own country, we tend to push the cross out to the margins, away from view, because we prefer a more upbeat and earned and triumphalist version of faith. 

This is, perhaps, because we are so obsessed with ourselves and what we deserve and how hard we’ve worked. We are moved by consumption and instant gratification. We lift up the healthy and the wealthy as the paragons of virtue and idealism. And, the more we do this, the more the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the celebrities of our culture become that which we idolize, and we ignore the plight of the sick, weak, lonely, and poor.

The word of the cross, that which confuses the religious and the irreligious alike, calls we who follow Jesus to embrace the struggle of life, to never turn a blind eye to those around us, and to remember that Christ meets us in the midst of our sins.

It’s scandalous. Amen.

Meek Mill and The Beatitudes

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Thomas Irby about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Micah 6.1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12). Thomas is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tacoma, Washington. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cliche Christian tattoos, social activism, divine controversies, usury, moral ambiguity, the cross as everything #blessed, peace-making vs. peace-keeping, and being poor in the kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Meek Mill and The Beatitudes

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Victory In Defeat

 

4d46bf1bb0394b294fab8d3ea3c7ea0b-1024x1024This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jim Moore about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Jim is a lawyer by trade and is currently working for the federal government with regard to the 2020 census. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fishing for puns, lay advice, doom and gloom, removing burdens, increasing joy, feeling guilty in church, dancing with our enemies, the old foolish cross, dinner parties with strangers, and the nearness of the kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Victory In Defeat

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