Yet

Psalm 22.1-11

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let them deliver – let them rescue the one in whom he delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

 

Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends. We, like they, broke bread together and shared a cup in order to remember what Jesus did.

And while we were together we talked a lot about memory – What stories do we hold on to – What stories do we want to forget?

Part of our memories, what makes them such, is our ability to have something memorized. Think, for instance, of a beloved story you like to tell, or even one you like to hear. Think about a favorite song or movie. Can you remember the words? Can you repeat them just like the singer or the actor? We memorize that which is valuable and important to us. We internalize particular words or phrases from those whom we love and we cherish the memories they become.

I have memorized many anecdotes from my family. I could stand here tonight and fill the evening with hilarious stories from just one of my grandmothers, and come back tomorrow and do it again without repeating anything twice. Those stories are important to me, and because they are part of my family’s history, they are all the more important. Such that at any given moment, should it be required, I can pull the avenues of the narrative to the surface, and I could share the story.

During the time of Jesus life, people had profound memories of well. Some things, regardless of the sands of time remain the same. Get people together today, or 2000 years ago, for a meal and the stories start to flow. But there was a level of memory present during the time of Jesus that has all but disappeared these days.

Jesus, and his contemporaries, knew the scriptures.

And when I say they knew them, I don’t mean they could open up a bible and find the book of Malachi, or they could list of the books of the bible in order at any given notice. No, they had scriptures memorized.

As a young Jew around the first century Jesus, like many others, would pray the psalms out loud once a week. All of them. From 1 to 150. The psalms were the spoken word of the people, they were on their hearts, minds, and lips, all day long. Praying through the psalms was as natural to them as watching bad sitcoms are to us. It was part of their collective identity.

Such that when Jesus was hung on a cross to die, his final words were these: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

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It is difficult and challenging to contemplate our Lord saying those words from the cross. We might be a little more comfortable with John’s story (It is finished) or even Luke’s version (Into thy hands I commit my spirit). But according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ final earthly words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

When I need to offer a grieving family a hopeful word, I often turn to Psalm 23, that beloved collection of verses that some of us have memorized. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. They are comforting words. But rarely, if ever, have I pulled out Psalm 22.

It’s difficult just to get past the first verse. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We are pulled to the cross, to the torment and to the agony of Jesus yelling out into the void moments before his death.

Jesus suffers. It is both disconnected and disconnecting. In suffering on the cross he was made completely alone. Entirely and utterly alone. In this moment we are welcomed into the divine in a way not parsed out in other places of the bible. Here on the cross, in the cry of dereliction we experience the duality of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, we experience the abyss of fear and the hope of things unseen, we confront the elect and the reject.

And yet here, on the cross, with his final moments, Jesus turned to prayer. Not a final sermon on the marks of a faithful life, not a moment of divine healing. Jesus prays.

Prayer corresponds with experience. It is the way we process the moment we are in with something larger and more enduring. Prayer is what enables us to scale the impossible mountains of torment that threaten to close us off from all we have known, and prayer is what enables us to see the truth of our lives in terms of what has gone before and what is yet to come.

Of all the things we do as disciples, worshipping the crucified Jesus is possibly the strangest. It is only something we can do through the power of prayer. It is also why tonight’s worship is usually the least attended of all the worship services in a year. Tonight we glorify the Son of God who was degraded by his fellow human being as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state. We worship the one who died in a way designed to subject him to utter shame and to be erased from human memory.

It is a story realer than real. It cannot be spiritualized away, nor can it be fully comprehended by we finite people. The climax of the gospel takes place in the midst of political and economic life, it is shocking and violent, it threatens the prevailing authorities, and it results in people two millennia later worshipping God nailed to a cross.

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There is a paradox in our worship tonight, a paradox as difficult as Jesus’ final words. The paradox is that the generosity of God means the crucifixion of the Son. In Him both the godly and the ungodly are justified.

According to the strange and mysterious wisdom of God, it is in the crucified death of Jesus that all of the cosmos is altered (and altar-ed). This death makes our lives possible. This death is what makes the Christian experience intelligible. This death is at the heart of who God is.

If you’re anything like me, you’re eager to jump to Easter. Enough with the crucifixion! Give me resurrection! But you can’t have one without the other.

We cannot ignore the challenging words of Jesus from the cross. We cannot imagine away, or explain away, the overwhelmingly jarring nature of the Son of God crying out to the Father in fear.

But of course, that’s not where the Psalm ends.

Psalm 22 contains what it possibly the greatest “yet” in scripture… “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”

On that “Yet” hangs both the Old and New Testament. In that “Yet” we confront the true paradox of the crucifixion: that Jesus is both elected and rejected, that he knows sorrow and hope, that he dies and will rise again.

Jesus knew the power of “yet.”

But we must wait for Easter. We have to take the terrible time to sit in the shadow of the cross, to see in this first century man all the fullness of God, to recognize our sin in him nailed to the tree.

Good Friday, unlike just about anything else we do as a church, cannot be tied up neatly in a bow. We can’t fast-forward to Sunday morning. We, like the disciples in the distance, have to look at our Lord on the cross and wait. We have to wait for God to do a new thing. We have to recognize that this is what God did for us, and not the other way around.

We will leave this place tonight under the cover of darkness. And yet… Jesus is the light of the world.

The words of our prayers and hymns will fall silent. And yet… God cannot be silenced.

The shadow will feel darker than ever. And yet…

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An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the The Liturgy of the Passion [Year B] (Isaiah 50.4-9a, Psalm 31.9-16, Philippians 2.5-11, Mark 14.1-15.47). Teer serves as the associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC and Jason is the executive pastor of Aldersgate UMC (both in Northern Virginia). Our conversation covers a range of topics including talking about ourselves as little as possible, the freedom to fail, memorizing scriptures and prayers, an accursed way to die, shame, the gospels as television channels, the nude dude, and disappearing from the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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Look At It And Live

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Ben Maddison about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Ben is an episcopal priest who serves as the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal church in Wenonah, NJ. Our conversation covers a range of topics including serving a church in a post-Christian context, clergy collars, fiery serpents, the temptation of allegory, healing and scars, God’s agency, backsliding, and Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Look At It And Live

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Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13

Devotional:

1 Peter 4.13

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

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“Who are you?” That is without a doubt one of my favorite questions to ask, because the way someone responds to that simple question says a lot about how the individual understands who he/she is. If I asked you the question right now, how would you respond? Recently, I’ve discovered that when I ask the question, the first response is almost always “I’m an American.”

This is, of course, true for many people in the context I serve, and it speaks volumes about priorities and identities. If someone’s immediate response was “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father” we could assume that they understand their parental role as their most important and therefore the identity they identify with most. Similarly, if someone’s response was “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” we could assume their political identity is their most important identity.

And answering with “I’m an American” can be a good and right thing, but if that is our first thought or response, it often shapes our understanding of Christianity rather than the other way around.

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Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their fears regarding change in the cultural ethos and most of it has to do with feeling safe. For instance, “We need to have that wall on the southern border to keep us safe” or, “We should’ve elected Clinton because she would’ve kept us safe.” But as Christians, being consumed by a desire to remain safe is strange and almost unintelligible; we worship a crucified God!

Peter calls the church to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” In America, as Americans, we fell so safe in our Christian identities that we assume being a Christian and being an American are synonymous. Therefore we are more captivated by a national narrative (Freedom, Capitalism, Democracy) than by the Christian narrative (Suffering, Patience, Penitence). But to call ourselves disciples implies an acknowledgement that, if we want to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we might find ourselves on top of a hill with a criminal on our left and on our right.

Taking our faith seriously is a difficult thing to do when it appears normative in the surrounding culture. Instead we fall captive to the other narratives that we believe dictate our lives. But the truth is that God is the author of our salvation, that the Holy Spirit determines our lives far more than any country, and that Jesus is our Lord.

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On The Death Penalty

Mark 10.26-27

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Luke 23.44-47

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with The Death Penalty.

 

 

He was sitting with his friends when the police rushed in. Everything moved in a blur while tables were overturned, bodies were thrown to the floor, and he was placed under arrest. The journey to jail and to the courthouse was strangely quiet, but he kept his head down and his mouth shut. Others came and went, he received strange and knowing looks, and he wondered if any of his friends were arrested as well.

When they dragged him in front of the judge, the courtroom was packed and people kept screaming from the back. The judge waited for everyone to calm down and the whole proceeding came down to one question, “Did you do it?” The man replied, “If I tell you what happened, you won’t believe me, and if I ask you a question, you won’t answer.” Again the judge asked, “Did you do it?” And the man replied, “You say that I did.”

In response, the judge smacked his gavel onto the wood and declared, “What further testimony to do we need? We’ve heard it ourselves from his own lips.” And with that, the man was condemned to death.

The courtroom erupted into celebration as the gathered people shouted “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” What made everything worse was the fact that the dead-man walking recognized some of the people who were shouting for his death, but nothing could stop the inevitable.

Time passed, and eventually he found himself walking to his own demise; walking down death row. With every footstep he thought about what had led him to this, he thought about his family and friends that had abandoned him at the end, he thought about how this would be the last time he’d feel the ground beneath his feet.

The executioners were ready to begin the moment he arrived. They took off his clothes, and laid him down. Only then did he notice that two other men were about to be executed as well. Their faces held grave expressions of fear, guilt, and sorrow. But just like with the man, they were on a path that had only one outcome- death.

It was about noon when everything started moving quickly, and the man noticed that it was strangely turning dark outside. They strapped him down until he could barely breathe and then they stood back and waited. With each moment he felt his life slipping away, his chest heaved for air that ceased to fill his lungs, his vision went blurry, and then he died.

His name was Jesus and he was executed by the state.

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Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life, and more often than not it comes down to this: “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 we have it in the Old Testament in our Bibles.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and we still employ it for a number of reasons. To kill someone for committing a crime is the only way to guarantee they will never recommit the same crime. It works and functions as a deterrence to influence others to not commit the crime. It helps bring closure to a family who is grieving the loss of someone who was murdered. And it saves the state a lot of money from having to keep someone in prison year after year after year.

In the United States, there are roughly 3,000 people on death row right now, and the death penalty takes place primarily through lethal injections – a poison is injected into someone’s blood stream that brings a quick and painless death, but many states still let people choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. The state of Washington however, still uses a noose to kill those who have been convicted. Across the county at least 56% of Americans support the death penalty.

And the state of Virginia, where we live, has executed more prisoners than any other state.

So why are we talking about the Death Penalty in church? Why is this a controversy that we need to confront?

Because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people often sight to justify the death penalty can just as easily be argued from a different perspective. The death penalty often fails to work as a deterrence because in the south where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. The closure that families experience in the short-term is present, but in the long-term they tend to experience more guilt and depression in a response to another person’s death. It actually costs the state a lot more money to put someone to death because of the required appeals process and the amount of time and resources that it necessitates. And, this is a very important ‘and’, since 1976 about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.

But all of the statistics and the facts, all of the psychology and the economics, are dwarfed by the fact that Christians still support the death penalty, even when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

We Christians love our crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skin and we wear them around out necks, I even carry one over my shoulder all over Staunton every Good Friday. But we have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, then we’d be wearing nooses around our necks instead of crosses. If Jesus died 50 years ago, then we’d be bowing before an electric chair in the sanctuary instead of a cross. And if Jesus died today, then we’d hang up hypodermic needles in our living rooms instead of crosses.

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 injection of modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crime.

The fact that 1 in 9 death-row inmates have been exonerated should be enough to give us pause. The fact that the state has murdered innocent people just like Jesus was murdered should give the church reason to repent. But if that’s not enough, then maybe this is: With God nothing is impossible.

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

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

            We like to think about David approaching Goliath on the battlefield, we like to imagine him dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with his wife.

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

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            With God nothing is impossible.

That’s the beginning and the end of theology, that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the drink, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging out our nooses? Why do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we keep strapping them down for a lethal injection? Why do we keep hanging people on crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. Mercy for an adulteress woman who was about to be stoned by the crowd, mercy for short tax collector who preyed on the poor, mercy for a criminal who hung on a cross right next to Jesus. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away without consequences, it doesn’t 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 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 the same crime. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can continue to take place without disrupting our daily lives.

But people are being murdered for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To retaliate murder for murder will only ever beget more violence, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

God sent his son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, not with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice. God sent his son to walk among us in order that we might catch glimpses of the kingdom. God in Christ ministered to the last, the least, and the lost, people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row. And God sent his son to carry 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 human beings. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent true repentance and new life from taking place in those who have fallen prey to evil. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. Amen.

 

Why The Cross? – Good Friday Homily

John 19.28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “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 hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

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I get asked a lot of questions. I’ll be in a bible study when the conversation moves to an area of confusion and all eyes will turn to me and someone will inevitably say, “What does this mean?” Or I’ll be in my office and someone will walk in to share about all of the trials and tribulations they’ve experienced and finish by asking, “So where is God in all of this?” Or, like after the atrocity in Brussels this week, I’ll receive an email that says, “How could God let this happen?” People are looking for answers.

On Wednesday morning I gathered all the little preschoolers into the sanctuary to talk about the cross. I wanted to show them the cross we have here in the sanctuary and eventually have them march outside in a line while I carried the cross. For most of them, Easter is about the bunny and the candy so anything I can do to make it more about Jesus is important.

They were all sitting nice and quiet in the pews as I explained Jesus’ final week, and that he died on a cross to help us get to heaven, and most of the kids nodded along. But one sat in the back pew with her eyebrows in an expression of “huh?” I tried to keep moving us forward but I could tell it wasn’t connecting with her so when I saw her shoot her hand up with a question I wasn’t surprised.

She asked, “But why did he have to die on a cross?”

In the moment I tried to answer her question in a way that only a four year old could understand, but the question has stayed with me nonetheless. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?

Well, he had to die on a cross because that’s the way the Romans executed those who they regarded as a threat. Today we have drones and missiles that we can fire from far away in order to remove ourselves from death, but during the time of Jesus, they were hung high in the air so that all could see what happened when you challenged Rome. The cross was a sign of death and fear.

But that answer is not good enough for those, few, of us who gather in a place like this on Good Friday. If you’re here right now, you get that discipleship is more than just Easter. You get that Jesus was more than just a nice guy. You get that there is something more to this cross than symbolic remembrance.

Jesus died on a cross to reveal the heart of God.

The cross is where God’s grace crosses our life to create a new way of living.

We’ve got crosses everywhere and sometimes we forget how terrifying they were and should be. It is our central icon and we have them displayed in our sanctuary, some of us have crosses around our necks, and some of us even have them tattooed on our bodies. But notice: our crosses are empty. It would disrupt our Protestant sensibilities to have a murdered and graphic Jesus hanging on the cross for everyone to see. We would rather have the clean empty cross to remind us of the resurrection. But if we lose sight of the fright and discomfort of the crucifixion, the empty grave becomes cheap grace.

So, to be here on Good Friday implies a willingness on our part to confront the cross and we also want it explained. We want to know ‘why.’

But Jesus doesn’t offer us an explanation.

Whenever the religious elite, or the crowds, or his disciples questioned him, he would respond in cryptic parables that left them more confused than in the beginning. Jesus doesn’t offer simple explanations. Instead he offers love.

Explanations will never calm our anxieties in regard to suffering and tragedy. The people who try to explain the death of a young child by saying that “God wanted another angel in heaven” transform God into a murderer for the sake of an explanation. The people who try to explain a disabled child as “God’s way of punishing the mistakes of the parents” make God in a torturer for the sake of explanation. The people who try to rationalize terrorist attacks with “God is using them to show us its time to go to war” morph God into a selfish, violent, and manipulative entity for the sake of explanation.

Love, not explanation, is required when we are faced with tragedies. Instead of telling a grieving mother that God wanted her baby, we are supposed to show up with love and not answers. Instead of blaming sinful or faithless behavior for the disabilities in a child, we are supposed to love them with every fiber of our being. Instead of dropping bombs and sending drones to wipe out the Middle East we are supposed to see them as our brothers and sisters.

To be Christian is to enter into suffering. We do not look away from tragedies, we do not abandon those who are alone, and we do not isolate ourselves from the ways of the world. Instead, because of the cross, we are tasked with showing up for others when there is literally nothing we can do to save ourselves from suffering.

So, we could take the time to outline the connections between Jesus hanging on a tree with the first sin of Adam and Eve taking fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We could go deep into rationalizing the cross through theories like God used Jesus as bait to hook the devil from hell. But the truest response to the cross, the way we are called to go forth from Good Friday, is to look at the cross and take up our own to follow Jesus. Amen.

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The Gifts of God – Grace

Philippians 1.3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

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From now until Christmas Eve, we will have a sermon series on the gifts of God. This is particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we will be reflecting on what God has given us. Today we continue the sermon series with God’s gift of Grace.

PowerPoint presentations were all the rage when I was in seminary. Professors would carefully craft their lectures around being able to display particular words on the screen while they talked. Some failed to use PowerPoint effectively and would just randomly throw words up on the screen without much context. But others used PowerPoint in a powerful way by displaying a piece of art and then describing how it conveys a deeper sense of faith than words alone.

In the spring semester of my first year I was in the middle of a New Testament lecture about the crucifixion when my professor began showing image after image of Jesus’ death. At the time, I was so academically invested in the words of scripture that I was treating it more like a text to be mastered rather than letting in sink into my soul.

I would go to church on Sundays but instead of listening to a sermon for my own discipleship I would think about how to change the sermon to make it more effective. I would receive communion but I would lose myself to thoughts of Eucharistic practices throughout the centuries while I chewed on the bread and juice. And I would read scripture everyday but I thought about how it applied to other people more than myself.

So there I was in the New Testament lecture and the images of Jesus’ death kept flowing across the large screen. I lost count of how many versions were displayed and at some point I stopped listening to my professor and stopped taking notes. Instead I watched my savior dying over and over again.

Some were abstract with shapes and colors conveying the cross and Christ’s body whereas others were remarkably vivid in detail with blood, cuts, and bruises. My professor continued to run through the images on the screen and let the art speak for itself. Like a merry-go-round of emotional impact, I sat in my chair observing the death of Christ until my professor stopped and said, “This is what Christ did for you.”

Overcome by the totality of the moment I jumped up from my chair and covered my tears as I walked out into the hallway. I remember breathing heavily as I tried to compose myself when my friend Wil came out of the lecture hall to check on me.

“What’s going on? Are you alright?” He asked.

I said, “I just don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve what Christ did.”

Then he looked me in the face and started to laugh. “Taylor,” he said, “That’s the whole point!”

Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison. In the shackles for the crime of his faithfulness, Paul continued to embody that same discipleship in a letter to a church that he loved. The community of faith had learned about Jesus Christ, they had heard about his ways and stories, they shared bread, wine, and goods together and were living a radically different life. Their faith in the Lord God was bearing fruit in the community and Paul wrote to encourage their commitment.

This wasn’t just a “keep up the good work” note, but was a profound theological reminder of what the point of the church is supposed to be.

I thank the God of heaven and earth whenever I remember you and I pray for you constantly. I am confident that God will bring your work to completion in Jesus Christ because of your commitment to the kingdom. It is right and good for me to think this way about you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.

What is God’s grace?

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I asked this question recently of our youth and some of our more seasoned Christians and I got a wide variety of answers: love, hope, peace, forgiveness, salvation, joy, knowledge, wisdom, food, blessing, etc. “Grace” is a buzzword in the church, one of those terms that we fling around all the time without really thinking about what it is. We say grace before we eat, we sing hymns like “Amazing Grace” and we even use it in common expressions like “there by the grace of God go I.” But what is grace?

Like my friend Wil reminding me in the hallway, Grace is love that we don’t deserve.

A few days ago I was standing on the front lawn of the church with all of our preschoolers. We were walking through the rows and rows of Christmas tree to select a few for the classrooms downstairs. Wilford Kirby generously volunteered his time to teach the children about how Christmas trees grow and how the real reason for the season isn’t the gifts under the tree but the gift of Jesus Christ for you and me. All of the kids loved it except for one, who was having a complete meltdown.

Why? I couldn’t begin to explain what was going through his mind. But for whatever reason, the moment we asked him to pick out a tree he started wailing and crying. “I don’t want a Christmas tree! NO! NO! NO!”

I tried to distract the other kids from his tears by guiding them along the trees and I could tell that the boy’s teacher was growing very tired of his outburst. Yet, while I kept an eye on her class, she went over to the boy wrapped her arms around him, and started to comfort him.

Grace is love that we don’t deserve.

Yesterday afternoon many of us gathered to remember the life of Dave Fitzgerald, a long time member of this church. We sat in our grief regarding the life that was lost, but we also faithfully proclaimed the promise of the resurrection. We got out the hymnal with our tissues and we praised God for sharing Dave’s life with us.

During the funeral I told a story about Dave that completely reshaped my understanding of the church. When I arrived at this church, Dave and his wife Pat were some of the first people I had a chance to visit outside of these walls. I hadn’t been here more than a month before I was sitting in their living room and learning about this church and all of you. They shared about why the church was important to their lives and how they had, hopefully, passed that feeling to their sons. I learned about how Dave used to butcher meat and stuff sausages in the back parking lot much to the chagrin of some older church members. And then I started to hear about all the drama from the past.

Every church has drama, arguments, and fights. After all, churches are filled with broken people like you and me. So Dave described this seemingly epic event from the past and how it made him so angry with the church and with the people in it. One man in particular. Who and why are not important. Frankly it could have been anyone about anything. But after he had finally got all of the frustration out, he said, “But just because I didn’t agree with him, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t love him.”

Grace is love that we don’t deserve.

Gods-grace

I am fortunate to know most of you and your stories. I have been invited into your homes and precious moments. I have learned your stories, and what makes you smile. You all are good people. But if you’re anything like me, you don’t deserve God’s love. You make the wrong choice when you know what you’re really supposed to do. You turn your head away from the public arguments and bullying that you know you could stop. You hear about the problems going on in the world and though you feel bad about it, you don’t have enough energy to do anything about it.

We are so broken people, us Christians. Frankly, that’s what church is all about. This place is not supposed to be a museum of saints. It is a hospital for sinners. We fail to be obedient to the words we hear in church and read in scripture. We love the tunes of the hymns but we forget to live according to them from Monday to Saturday. And we are content to leave our discipleship in this room.

And guess what? God still loves us even through we don’t deserve it!

Can you think of anything more radical that our God could possibly do? I believe in the profound power of the resurrection from the dead, but I am still astonished by the fact that God loves me even though I don’t deserve it.

Like a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, God will always welcome us home.

Like a crying preschooler on the front lawn, God will always surround us with love.

Like a frustrated parishioner, God will always love us even if God doesn’t agree with us.

Grace is love that we don’t deserve. Grace is a gift.

This table embodies God’s overwhelming grace. There are plenty of people in our lives that, if we did something bad enough, they would never welcome us back. Walls will be built up between us and few bridges would ever get us back. Yet God, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, always invites us to the table and to the kingdom. God’s love is so profound that even when we are at our worst, God will be here with open arms.

God’s grace is a gift. Grace is the love of God made manifest in the life of Jesus Christ who gave his life for the world. Grace is the love of God made real in a baby born in a manger to a young woman in the middle of Bethlehem. Grace is the bread and cup at this table offered to you no matter what.

Grace is love that we don’t deserve. Amen.