Seeking Welfare

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Drew serves as the senior pastor at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the difference between lepers and leopards, Halloween costumes, The Christian Imagination, communion vs. colonialism, joyful hymns, Being Disciples, remembering Christ, going to the cross, preaching the whole Bible, and joining the party. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Seeking Welfare

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Inescapable

Luke 17.1-10

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

I don’t like that this is true, but people are more often drawn to church out of problems than out of successes. People don’t usually wake up the morning after receiving a raise to think, “You know what, I’m gonna swing by the church today.” No, people usually come by when they find out they’re being fired. 

Which, to be honest, is probably a good thing. After all, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. It is here at church that we can finally dispense with all of the pretending and can admit the condition of our condition.

And our condition is bad.

Here’s just a sample of some of the headlines this week: 

“One In Ten Older Adults Binge Drink Regularly”

“Father Forgets Twins In Hot Car For Eight Hours Resulting In Their Death.”

“Two American Mass Shootings In 24 Hours And The Third In A Week.”

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And we need not even look in the newspapers or on our favorite channels at night to see how messed up this world is; how messed up we are. Just take a drive down Route 1 for a little while and take in what you can see. We are stumbling and in our stumbling we are causing others to stumble.

So what should we do about it?

Well, I’ve been thinking, and it’s by no means an easy to handle solution, but I think it will largely take care of our problems. I’ve lined the back of our sanctuary with dozens of metal buckets, and with each bucket you can find a bag of quick dry cement. After the benediction at the end of the service, we’re each going to take a bucket with cement down to the river, and we are going to make sure that none of us cause anyone else to stumble ever again.

Amen?

Now, before you start throwing your tomatoes, I stole that idea from Jesus. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

So who’s ready to head down to the water with me?

Jesus is right. It is inevitable that scandals will come. 

I know that sounds different than “occasions for stumbling” because it is different. But in Greek the word is our word for scandal. And the words we use are important.

Throughout the New Testament “scandal” is used when referring to something that occasions sins or temptation. But it is also used in reference to the cross of Christ. As in, to the weakness and foolishness of the method of salvation at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is absolutely a scandal to cause someone else to sin in their life. But it also absolutely a scandal that God chose to come into the world and die in order that we might live.

Which leaves us with a difficult question – What kind of scandal are we really talking about?

I mean, if you are want to take Jesus literally here, while recognizing that each of us in ways both small and large have caused others to sin, then we can all throw ourselves into the Occoquan, but that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds like the worst news.

Let us, then, at least entertain the thought that the scandal mentioned here by Jesus isn’t as we’ve so often heard it. Instead, perhaps the scandal that causes us and other to stumble isn’t our own sin, though it certainly can, but the greatest scandal of all is the scandal of the cross.

Our sins are absolutely inescapable in this life, at least that the way we act regarding our sin. We label people by their faults and failure and those labels follow those people until the end of their days. But, in the same way, the cross of Christ is inescapable as well. 

We then could read the verse in question differently: It would be better for someone to meet a violent end than to make someone else believe in a grace that requires them to do something to earn grace. 

The cross stands as an uncomfortable and unwavering reminder that you and I don’t need to do a thing for it. And yet so much of what we do as a culture, and heaven forbid as a church, tells people there is always more for them to do in order to get God to do anything.

And that might be the greatest stumbling block of all.

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Jesus, of course, doesn’t leave it all right there and begins to teach the disciples about real and unending forgiveness. 

The disciples, bless their little hearts, are just like us and when they hear the Lord tell them to practice this kind of forgiveness it cuts against everything they, and we, have ever heard. It is bad advice, according to the world, to continue to forgive people who keep wronging us. But in the kingdom, the truth is that only those willing to lose can ever really win. 

If we insist on being right and being perfect and only surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, we will be out of luck regarding salvation. Moreover, our lives will be downright boring if that all we hope and yearn for.

The disciples, in this circumstance, hear the word from their Lord and recognize they haven’t got nearly the right amount of spiritual resources to keep forgiving people so they naturally ask for the thing they need most: Lord, increase our faith.

And the way we often treat their request is to assume that we need to ask for the very same thing. If we only had a little more faith then we could do the kind of forgiving work Jesus was talking about, if we only had a little more faith then we wouldn’t cause other people to stumble. And when Jesus responds to their request with talk of mustard seeds we hear that as an approval to start small.

But, that feels like we’re actually going backwards. Notice – they ask for more faith, and Jesus tell them if they had even less faith than they currently have, a mustard size faith isn’t much faith at all, the preposterous and impossible would seem reasonable and true.

In other words, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of followers, looks at each and every one of us, and declares for the thousandth time, that even when it comes to faith we don’t have to be winners.

And that sounds like much better news than marching down to the water!

It can be downright exhausting to be told over and over again that we just need to have more faith. Lost your job? You need more faith! Can’t get a date? You need more faith! Worried about the bills? You need more faith! Blah blah blah. 

Faith is not faith if it needs to be stronger, purer, or greater.

Somewhere along the line we crossed our wires and we haven’t really figured out how to put them back. We have these absurd notions, even in the church, that we’ve got these little faith meters attached to our brains, and that after a lifetime of accumulating more and more faith, that we get to go on to our heavenly reward.

But the truth of the gospel is that we cannot be saved by our faith anymore than by our measurements of mortality or supplements of spirituality. All of our talk of self-improvement amounts to nothing more than salvation by works, which in the New Testament, is rejected over and over and over again. 

It is a crying shame that we have fallen into the trap of thinking “more” means salvation.

Which makes the mustard seed actually crazier when we take it in light of Jesus’ words and work. Maybe faith isn’t even essential in terms of salvation at all. 

I mean, what does a mustard seed have to do to do anything? Be buried in the ground and die. So, perhaps even if we have no faith, really, even if we say no to Jesus again and again, we still die and out of our death Jesus still raises us. 

I know that sounds crazy but Jesus is pretty crazy. Over and over Jesus speaks of the all of salvation, the all of the cross, and its we who put numbers and figures on the all. 

Now, of course we won’t be able to enjoy the Supper of the Lamb and we won’t throw ourselves into the music on the dance floor unless we say yes to it. But Jesus’ party is inescapable. Even if we don’t want it, as crazy as that sounds, Jesus’ nagging invitation to the celebration will never ever stop. Not now. Not ever.

Which leads us to the final movement in the scripture, the last part of the parable – the returning servant. Friends, we can and have really messed this part up. We’ve read this as a call for there to be certain kinds of people with certain kinds of rolls in the world. In fact, slaveowners used to use these last lines to keep their slaves in their places, but Jesus is far craftier than that.

Do you thank your slaves for doing the work they were commanded? No, of course not. They are your slaves and they have a job to do.

Coming in the wake of the scandal of the cross, and unending forgiveness, and limited faith, the final movement here sounds like Jesus knocking the disciples over the head with the gospel truth one final time.

Remember the unthanked and the unrewarded slave the next time you expect God to delight in any of your little good deeds. We followers of Jesus have only got one real job to do that’s worth anything at all and that’s to die. Die to ways we think the world works, and in the end die to the life we so desperately cling to. Because in the end, that all God’s needs from us. Everything else that needs doing will be, and have already been, done by God.

I know it stings, but I also know it stings far less than thinking about cementing our feet into buckets. I know we don’t like to hear it, but I also know that if we were honest with ourselves all of us know, deep down, that we could never earn the salvation from God we so desire. 

No matter how good any of us are, no matter what kind of list of good deeds we could present at the end of our days, it would never ever compare with what God’s doing and done for us. 

The greatest scandal over which we stumble is the cross, because it shines like a beacon for all of us to see that we don’t deserve it, but that God did it all anyway. 

My sin, oh, the bless of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part by the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. Amen.

The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

The (Christian) Addiction To War

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The airfield was remarkably dark in the middle of the night so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were so many people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. Though he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated. 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why. 

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

This is our command.

And it is also our dilemma. 

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to Syria to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies. 

To follow Jesus, to be disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War, it is the way.

And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is very easy for me to write about the virtues of pacifism. No one is dropping bombs on my life or my community. I am not at risk for an invasion from a foreign oppressor. 

It is easy to be a pacifist in America.

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And we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled, otherwise people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil. 

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

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John 18.37-19.6

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They keep coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bring him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.”

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for answers. Hundreds of people wrote in about hundreds of different subjects. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”

If you were with us last night for our Maundy Thursday service you heard me address our captivity to the past. That we are so captive to and by the past is evidenced in our grammar, in our actions, and even in our conversations. 

I tried to make the case for confusing our sense of time because Jesus is not bound to the past and continues to live and reign with God and the Holy Spirit even today. Moreover, we always gather at the table in anticipation of the divine table around which we shall gather one day. 

But now I want us to return to the theme of time, and in particular how haunted we are by it. We are of course haunted by our own histories, the wrong choices we made, and the right ones we’ve avoided – but we are also haunted by the history of our humanity, which, frankly, has been rather inhumane.

The last 100 years have perhaps been the most bloody in our history. Every time we engaged in a new war there was an assumption that the current war would be the end of war and yet we are now, have been, in a state of war for the better part of the last 20 years. 

But we are good at denial. 

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We look at something like the Holocaust and we feel as if we are able to wash our hands of it because the Germans were responsible for that horrific tragedy. But the “we” in that sentence is particularly problematic if the “we” is we Christians or even we Americans. Because, as Americans, we were given the opportunity by Germany to receive countless Jews before the Holocaust ever began and we turned them away over and and over again. Moreover, as Christians, it was the Christianity in Germany that led to the anti-semitism that resulted in death chambers and funeral pyres.

Tonight is Good Friday. 

It is not an easy night in the life of the Christian witness.

We are forced to look at the cross, at ourselves, and at our Lord.

And in so doing we cannot deny that we are inheritors of a history that makes us a people who should acknowledge that we are anything but innocent. 

There is a church right smack dab in the middle of downtown Detroit that was built before all the white people fled the city. The enormous pipe organ required a frighteningly ridiculous amount of money to purchase and install. The Tiffany stained glass windows portrayed the pivotal moments of Jesus’ life. And the pulpit towered above everyone who sat in the pews.

But, over the years, the sanctuary has changed.

They haven’t been able to afford an organist in years and no one even knows if the organ still works.

The stained glass windows are now punctuated with bullet holes and iron bars.

And they sold the pulpit to a growing church in the suburbs years ago requiring the pastor to just walk around by the pews on Sunday mornings.

I sat in that church years ago and stared up at their cross hanging 20 feet above the ground. I tried to imagine what the church must have been like during its hay day, because when I was there there were only 12 of us in the pews.

I listened to the sermon, but I didn’t pay attention. The cross commanded my attention. 

It was huge, far larger than the one used to crucify Jesus. It had a deep are dark hue to it and certainly seemed like it had come from a far away land.

While almost everything else in the church was falling apart the cross was immaculate. Perhaps because it was dangling in the air no one had messed with it.

But the longer I looked at it, the more I noticed something strange; the bottom right corner was all gnarled and messed up.

Honestly, it looked like a dog had been chewing on it.

For years.

So after the service, while shaking hands with the faithful remnant, I asked about the cross and in particular what had happened to it.

One of the ushers proudly beamed, “We’ve been taking it down every Good Friday since the first year this church opened and we drag it through the streets of Detroit. And every year we hang it back up on Easter Sunday.”

“Why?”

“So that we don’t forget what we did.”

So that we don’t forget what we did.

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At the heart of our faith is the strange and bizarre proclamation that Jesus was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as was possible. 

That he was murdered by decree from the religious establishments and from the state.

That even when given the opportunity to let him go, the crowds shouted “Crucify!” with reckless abandon.

In just about every religious system in the world, there is a huge distinction between those who are holy and those who are unholy, between the right and the wrong, between the godly and the ungodly.

But in Christianity, there is really no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. None is righteous, no, not one. (to quote St. Paul)

The crucifixion of Jesus, what we have come here to mark tonight, is not a very religious event. Which is to say, its not very spiritual. It is particularly and specifically rooted in what we might call “the real.” It happens in the midst of political jockeying for power, it is shocking and extremely violent, it threatens the established religious authorities, and it forces us to look upon the darkness of death.

During the time of Jesus, Jews did not crucify people – it was a Roman punishment. And yet, John portrays for us a strange back and forth between those in power. They certainly wanted the rabble-rouser taken care of, some wanted him dead, but no one wanted the responsibility. 

And, as nearly all things in the church go, we could debate the responsibility of the death of Jesus. We can cherry-pick particular verses and try to pin it on someone or some people. 

But the truth about the responsibility of Jesus’ crucifixion is what we were just singing: ’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.

I crucified thee.

It was me.

It was us.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. We throw that around a lot in the church, and it might be the most important thing we can remember tonight. 

We are the ungodly for whom Christ died. 

Sure, had we been there in the crowds that day, we might not have shouted crucify, we might not have hammered the nails into his flesh, we might not have mocked him with his crown of thorns and purple robe. 

But we all say “Crucify!” in our own way. 

We make assumptions about people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

We judge people for the name of a politician on their bumper sticker.

We perpetuate systems of injustice in which more and more people suffer.

In the church today we have this strong desire to be inclusive, though we are often unsure as to what that really means. For to be truly inclusive is not just a matter of having different kinds of people in the building. It means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us. 

Because even when we are able to ditch an old division between us a new one arises in its place. It is part of our sinful, and human, nature to do so. 

This is no more ironic than outside the churches that have signs saying, “Hate has no place here.” 

That a worthy claim but it is a lie. 

All of us have hate in us, whether we like to admit it or not, and, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in a church affirms that that church hates people who hate!

Which leads us back to the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus puts to an end the religious categories that separate people from one another and unites us under a common banner. We might want that banner to be a declaration of love, or grace, or mercy. But the thing under which we are all included is actually our guilt. 

We, all of us, are the ungodly.

And yet Christ dies, for us. 

This is the great generosity of God who, knowing our hearts and minds and souls, dies for us anyway. It is a scandalous generosity because it is fundamentally counter to anything we would do. 

To be honest, the crucifixion is a very ungodly thing for Jesus to do. 

But that’s kind of the whole point.

It was about noon when Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

So they took him; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscriptions written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of the hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And he died.

What’s wrong with the world? I am. Amen. 

The Cross Is Not Optional

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have three episodes for Holy Week and we continue with Good Friday [C] (Isaiah 53.13-53.12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10.16-25, John 18.1-19.42). Teer Hardy was gracious enough to join me for two of the episodes. Our second conversation covers a range of topics including long passages, bad Good Friday services, speed balls, Fleming Rutledge, theological claims, pole-vaulting, the work of the cross, and sitting in the mystery. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Cross Is Not Optional

GoodFriday

For The Love Of God

Luke 13.31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting our demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

On Friday afternoon, a man parked his car in front of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He calmly walked into the building while the community was in the midst of prayer, and he pulled out a gun. However, right before he began firing the first victim’s final words were spoken aloud, “Hello brother.”

By the time the extraordinarily unprecedented acts of violence came to an end, 49 people were dead, and another 48 were in the hospital being treated for injuries. Some of whom were young children.

New Zealand’s Police commissioner spoke on television during an evening news conference that night to share the horrific news with the country and he urged everyone to avoid mosques and encouraged all mosques in the country to close their doors until they heard from the police.

New Zealand Mosque Shooting

What a horrifically horrible thing to take place. The reverberations of such were felt across the world as mosques here in the US had extra security for their Friday and weekend services. 

Sadly, many of them already have to have security for their worship services.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we were told that this place, our house of worship, was off limits because of violence? Can you imagine how it would feel in the pits of stomachs if we were told to avoid churches because they were no longer safe?

And yet, we don’t have to imagine what that is like.

Whether it’s a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, we know what violence can do to places of worship.

Charleston.

Pittsburgh.

Sutherland Springs.

And those are just the places in the last few years.

Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent – the season of repentance and introspection. In scripture we confront the tones of abject disappointment from the Messiah as the cross get sharper and sharper on the horizon. 

Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to come home. 

Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do. 

Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one that we adorn our sanctuaries with.

Are we surprised that as Jesus’ ministry progresses, his frustrations increases just as the obstacles standing in his way increase?

The political and religious establishments are threatened by this poor rabbi and his message of the new kingdom. Can we blame them? They know what it means to be in the places of prestige and power and then this wandering Jew shows up with his ragtag group of followers with talk of the meek inheriting the earth.

Which makes this passage all the more strange. It’s rather particularly peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.

“Go away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Are they really worried about him? Or is this but another part of their political machinations to ultimately get him killed?

Scripture doesn’t answer our questions, but it is clear that Jesus is determined in spite of the warnings, to reach his goal. No cunning fox and no city of rebellion will keep him from doing what he must do.

the-cross

In fact, those two will ultimately be responsible for Jesus paying the ultimate price in his ultimate place.

During the season of Lent, the scriptures appointed for us compel us to keep our eyes on the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is now on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end of this marathon of ministry. And Jesus loves Jerusalem.

But it is a strange love.

He compares his love for the city to a mother hen’s love for her chicks. 

Even though Jerusalem has responded to God’s love with rebellion, with selfish ambition, and with violence.

Somehow, Jesus holds that two incompatible things together.

He loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.

And though it’s hard for us to admit, the same holds true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our rebellion, it such that it eventually leads to his death.

Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward Jerusalem, and all that it holds for him, which of course means that Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward us, the very people who still persist in following our own way.

One of the most difficult things to reckon with in the gospel accounts is how much the ministry of Jesus transcends all of our understandings of right and wrong and first and last and good and bad. It cuts straight through the margins that exist in our world and creates something so new, so very new, that we are still afraid of it, even all these 2,000 years later.

Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus is unwavering and persistent in his desire to bring in those who were once cast out, to raise up those once beaten down, and to gather near those who were once lost. 

Which, ostensibly, sounds like good news.

And yet, it’s as if we haven’t heard it.

Or, at the very least, we act as if it isn’t true.

The kingdom of God is always bigger than we can imagine. Or to put it another way, the scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are always larger than we limit them to be. 

But, throughout history and even today, the longer we make the table, the more upset we become.

The man who marched into the mosques last week leaving a trail of blood in his wake did so with white supremacist slogans painted on the side of his weapons. For whatever reason, he could not imagine a world in which those whom he killed had any worth or value.

The same holds true for just about all of the expressions of religious violence that have taken place in the world. Whether it was the young man who walked into Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the crusades, to the massacre of 6 million Jews, to just about anything else we can remember or imagine, they, in some way, boil down to the fact that people could not stand being with other people. 

There was a story that was reported following the attack at the mosques in New Zealand that received very little coverage. While news outlets were entering the foray of gun control debates and whether or not political leaders would denounce white nationalism, the entire Jewish population of New Zealand agreed to close their doors for Sabbath observance on Saturday – not out of fear or the expectation of violence, but simply to be in solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters who were told not to enter Mosques.

Think about that for a moment.

An entire religious institution agreed that rather than doing what they wanted, rather than continuing to maintain the status quo this weekend, they would choose be in solidarity with those who were marginalized and attacked. 

Meanwhile, these two groups, in other parts of the world, have absolutely nothing to do with one another and are often at the forefront of antagonism.

The violence that took place in the mosques was absolutely unprecedented, but so too was the response of the Jewish community in New Zealand. 

In many ways, that’s what the work of Christ looks like. It is beyond out ability to imagine or even comprehend. It is a willingness to be with the very people who rest at the root of our frustrations. It is a witness to a faithful belief that all really means all.

Or, to use the words of another preacher:

No one is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

Each person’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in humankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bells tolls,

It tolls for thee.

And yet, how many days will it take before most of us are distracted by the next problem or the next tragedy? How long will we continue to keep certain people far off while gathering in the people we like?

There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, a marker of our delivery from the captivity to Sin and Death. But, in it, we also discover our mutual rebellion from the one who came to live and die and live again for us.

There is a great leveling on the hill called Golgotha. Because until that moment, as Jesus says, the house was left to us. And, we can admit on our better days, when the house is left to us we like to chose who is able to join us in the house. We like to create our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is included and who is excluded.

But so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God. 

Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. 

It will be a place where every attempt at making the table longer results in more anger, in more vitriol, and in more violence. 

It will be a place of our own making, and therefore our own doom. 

God in Christ desperately desired to gather us in, all of us, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And again and again and again we were unwilling to do so. Whether it was our voice that led to the exclusion of others, or we ourselves felt the wrath of being excluded, the door remained closed.

So Jesus leaves the house to us.

But not forever. 

“Truly I tell you, you will not see me until the times comes when you say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Those are the words sung by the crowds waving their palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back on a donkey. Those are the same words we will be singing in a few weeks.

Jesus does not abandon us to our own devices and to our own houses. Instead he arrives in the strangest of ways and triumphantly declares, through his death, this is my Father’s house!

Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is so unlike us! He continues to work to gather all of us in even while we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing that we often choose the wrong thing or avoid doing the right thing. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we think the house belongs to us!

This Lenten season, it is good and right for us to confront the frightening reality of our reality. Whether its in New Zealand, or in our back yards, this world is full of people, people like us, who simply cannot fathom the other being our brother or the stranger being our sister.

But the cross is free to all, and from it flows a healing stream for all.

And all means all.

Whether we like it or not. Amen.