The Adventure That Is Church

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

I have a conflicted and tumultuous relationship with church membership.

I went through confirmation as a tween-ager in my home United Methodist Church and became a member at the conclusion, though we never once talked about what that meant. Instead we watched the 6 hour long film Jesus of Nazareth over 6 different Sundays and talked about what prayer was supposed to look like and feel like.

But covenanting to support the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Nope.

Additionally, when other people joined the church it would take place like this: The pastor would occasionally announce, right before the concluding hymn, that if anyone felt the Spirit moving them to join the church, then they could come forward and do so. And, occasionally, people would march forward, share their names and vocations before the benediction, and that was that.

Moreover, I am part of a generation that is deeply suspicious of joining anything

Therefore, when it comes to church membership I often let people come to me with their questions rather than pushing people to join.

And, after serving the UMC for nearly a decade, I think I’ve been wrong.

My wrongness stems from the fact that I have treated membership to the church like membership to any other number of organizations, whereas to join the church as a member is actually a profound witness to our faith.

For example: There’s a bishop from another denomination (thankfully) that often tells a story about recruiting for a local seminary. Over the years the bishop would meet with candidates and at some point in the conversation he would say, “Why should I join the church?” And the candidates would often wax lyrical about the music program, or the value of community outreach, or the fellowship that is present on Sunday mornings, but not a single candidate ever said anything about Jesus.

The church is not the local symphony through which you can experience dynamic music every once in a while. The church is not yet another social agency through which you can feel better about making other people’s lives better. The church is not a country club through which you can meet people of a similar social strata.

The church can be like those things, but the one thing the church is and has that nothing else does is Jesus.

Therefore, to join the church as a member is a remarkable thing. It is a strange adventure that is made possible only by faith.

Notably, when the Lord teaches the disciples about forgiveness they can’t wrap their heads around it. It would be one thing if Jesus told them they should try to forgive one another but instead he tells them they can never stop forgiving one another. That runs against everything the world teaches us. But forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, and of the church.

If we insist on being right and perfect and only ever surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, our lives will be miserable and boring.

The church, then, stands as a dynamic witness to the power of the Spirit. The great gifts of the church include connecting us with people we would otherwise never connect with, the sacraments that make our lives intelligible in the first place, and the promise of the empty tomb that offers us a new past where we are no longer defined by our mistakes and a new future where resurrection is reality. 

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I became a member of my home church, but it was the difference that made all the difference in the world. It was the difference because, week after week, the church gave me Jesus.

In the end, the church is a miracle and, like the early disciples, we need all the faith we can get for it to be the blessing that it is and can be.

Therefore, if you are not (yet) a member of a church, I encourage you to prayerfully consider joining. It will take faith, but even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough in the kingdom of God. 

When Is Enough, Enough?

1 Timothy 6.6-9

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and fearful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 

A recent study noted that at least 80% of Americans experience daily stress regarding the economy and their personal finances. More than 50% are worried about being able to provide for their families basic needs. 56% are fearful about job security. And 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: $$$

Admittedly, those statistics probably aren’t that shocking considering how much of our daily lives revolve around our wallets. With the ubiquity of online banking we can figure out exactly how much, or how little, we have at any given moment. 

And yet, the “we have” in that sentence betrays the basic Christian conviction that our money doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to God.

A professor of mine once opined about how different the church would be if, when individuals took vows of membership, they read their tax return aloud from the year before. Can you imagine the fervor that would follow if the church announced personal financial disclosures as new membership requirements? And yet, to do so would be faithful! 

Jesus talks about money/possessions, and the use of them for others, almost more than any other single subject in the New Testament, and yet (outside a stewardship campaign) we rarely talk about them in church.

Instead, wealth is something so privatized that we can scarcely imagine what it would mean to share it with others, let alone the church. We hoard it, like the man with his store houses in one of Jesus’ parables. Or, we spend it with such reckless abandon that we go into a debt we have no hope of ever repaying.

A relevant question for anyone, particularly those who are part of a faith community, is: when is enough, enough?

The gifted preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of a time when he and his wife had a guest in their home who was spending the night. As Craddock read from the newspaper in the corner of the room, consumed by the movement of the Market, the guest was rolling around on the floor with Craddock’s kids teaching them a new game. And Craddock thought to himself, “How long has it been since I came home from work, got down on the floor, and had fun with my kids?”

Later, after dinner, the guest declared, “That’s just about one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.” And Craddock thought to himself, “When was the last time I thanked my wife for our dinner?”

Craddock was merely going through the familiar patterns of life, keeping up with the rat race of all things: coming home from work, reading the paper, eating dinner. And then, through the guest, everything started to look different. Craddock said to himself, “Where in the world have I been?”

God has richly blessed each and every single one of us in a variety of ways. From the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to the friends we love.

Sometimes it takes a guest in our home, or a particularly striking passage from scripture, for us to finally ask ourselves the same question, “Where in the world have I been?” Which is just another version of, “When is enough, enough?”

The Life Of The Party

Luke 12.35-36

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

We worship an odd God.

Jesus, when the crowds push for proclamations about the kingdom, often resorts to the telling of a tale that pops every circuit breaker in the minds of those who hear what he has to say. Preachers like me, on the other hand, rejoice in providing “aha!” moments from the pulpit in which everything is tied neatly in a bow. But Jesus tells all sorts of parables that simply do not explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Jesus’ parables call attention to all the unsatisfactoriness of every previous explanation.

Listen to the so-called parable of the Watchful Servants: “Be dressed like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding, so that you may open the door for him as soon as he arrives. The master will have you sit down to eat, and he will come and serve you.”

Jesus asks us to imagine ourselves as those waiting for a master to return from a wedding that we weren’t invited to. Stay awake and welcome the Lord’s arrival because he, apparently, is bringing the party with him.

Jesus is wild. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our doing not much of anything, is the only good news around.  The sooner we accept that our lives are already changed in Jesus, forever, the sooner the party walks in through the door.

Therefore, we needn’t worry about whether or not we’re invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake night after night fearful if our popularity, goodness, or faith have been enough. Our salvation, the party incarnate, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

Jesus does not come to the door with sober judgments about what it takes to make it in this life and beyond, nor does Jesus come with grim requirements about what it means to make it past the bouncer at the party called the kingdom of heaven.

Instead, Jesus comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a few snacks and drinks hidden under the cover of his robe, and before we can say or do anything, he sets up the table and beckons us close.

It’s a strange parable. 

But it’s right there in the strange new world of the Bible, and it’s also right here right now.

We are blessed by the risen Lord who knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And, wildly enough, the party is not off in some different place or some different time. It is with us right now, it’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice. We, to take the language of the parable, are so consumed by the busyness of our lives that we can’t even hear Jesus banging on the door. 

Our whole lives, the mess of our busyness, lead only toward our deaths. And it’s all okay, because in baptism we’ve already died with Christ. It is Jesus who is our life. Jesus is the one who comes for us from the wedding feat – he comes to us with the celebration under his arm and he wants nothing more than to rejoice with us. 

No wonder we call the Good News good. 

Something For Nothing

Luke 12.15-16

Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly…”

Vacation Bible School often provides plenty of sermon illustrations. Kids have this knack for pulling away the facade of mature theological interpretations with a curiosity and wonder that makes the Good News good. Case in point: Two nights ago I was trying to convey the truly wild tale of God providing manna in the wilderness to the grumbling Israelites when one of the kids asked, “Why would God be so nice when all they did was complain?”

It’s a great question.

It’s a great question not only for the wandering Israelites, but also for us.

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing when a pair of feuding brothers bring their own query to the Lord. They are fighting over the family inheritance when Jesus drops the parable of the storehouse:

“There is a man who has a field that produces abundantly, and he realizes he doesn’t have enough barns to store all of his crops, so he destroys his small barns and builds even bigger barns to hoard up all his produce. But God says to the man, ‘You fool! When you die, what good are your possessions? You can’t bring them with you.’”

This, unlike a fair number of the parables, is an easy one to, like Jesus, drop on congregations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. You can’t take your riches with you beyond the grave. Therefore, be generous toward other people. Be generous toward God through your tithes and offering to the church.”

And maybe all of that is true and maybe that’s exactly what we should hear in church. Perhaps we are called to recognize how we have been blessed (in some way, shape, or form) to be a blessing for others.

But if that’s all this parable is for, then it might as well come from a life-coach or a non-profit. The dangling moralism at the end for a more generous way of living could come from any number of sources and mean basically the same thing.

But what makes the parable of the storehouse different is the one who tells the parable.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: “Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy.” 

We can certainly copy the parable of the storehouse, we can give abundantly because much has been given to us. But the real reason we can do all of that, is because this is a story that Jesus tells about himself.

Jesus, rather than storing up his own life and saving it, willingly lays it down and sheds his own blood for a people undeserving.

The man in the parable has a lot, but he is missing something. He lacks grace. Because when you have grace, you begin to have an awareness of how empty all of our other possessions really are. Possessions cannot add a minute to our lives nor can they save us. The only thing that can save us is Jesus; we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in need of saving.

From the manna in the wilderness, to the cross and empty tomb, God is in the business of forgiveness, of doing something while we deserve nothing. That’s why Jesus tells the parables he tells because they point to the wild nature by which God’s grace changes the cosmos. 

The parables don’t give us examples of how to live so much as they show us how God lives, and dies, for us. 

Pray Like This…

Luke 11.1-4

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

When the disciples badger Jesus for a way to pray he responds, “When you pray, pray like this: Lord, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgive us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”

The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke is decisively different than the one recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s shorter, it dispenses with some of the elevated liturgical language, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter.

And, even though Christians say the Lord’s prayer over and over again, we can’t help but scratch our heads with regard to how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when we consider how Jesus told the disciples this prayer after they requested something akin to what John gave to his disciples.

John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter what we might call “The Program of Salvation.” There are different stages and expectations of what it means to get from where you are to where you can be. You confess and repent of all your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.

In John’s “Program of Salvation,” redemption is all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.

Jesus, on the other hand, sees all things differently. He, himself, is the new thing that happens to, and for, everyone. There’s no “program” to get God to do anything.

Jesus doesn’t come to show the disciples, and us, how to get our lives in order in order to get good with God. Instead, Jesus is God who comes to us.

This, admittedly, can be frustrating for the many of us who would prefer it if Jesus were clearer about what we should and shouldn’t do. And yet, the proclamation of the Good News is, indeed, good news: Jesus saves us because we are in need of saving.

The challenges comes in admitting that we are not like what we ought to be. 

The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want salvation to be laid out nice and clear with regard to what we need to do, and say, and believe. We enjoy trite and memorable zingers of goodness like, be prepared or do a good turn daily. We love the idea of being reasonably good people getting better all the time. 

But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with one that runs against our notions of what it means to be faithful. Because, according to Jesus, to be faithful doesn’t require us to do much of anything. In fact, the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive. 

The Lord’s prayer (Matthew’s and Luke’s) rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that blanket our Sunday morning liturgies. It does not hint at ethical perfection, or dance around moral equivocation. It is just the bare necessities of keeping us together and fed so that we can finally start celebrating the wonderful and wild news that Jesus is for us, no matter what. 

Down In The Ditch

Luke 10.30

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

A few years ago, on July 5th, I was sitting in the church office when the church secretary called across the hallway:

“Umm,” she began. “I’m not sure how to quite put this, but, did you happen to see the woman in the bikini lying down in one of the church parking spaces on your way in this morning?”

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of the secretary’s office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closest to the main road, was a young woman on her back, wearing nothing but a bikini, and she wasn’t moving.

The secretary promptly elbowed me in the ribs, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you supposed to do something?”

“Of course I’m supposed to do something.” I said as I waited for someone else driving by the church to do something.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

I felt pitiful as I reluctantly made my way across the parking lot, unsure of what was about to happen. Car after car came flying down the road while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them slowed down to see the scandalous scene. 

As I got closer I thought about picking up a stick, in order to poke her to make sure she was still of this world, but then she slowly rolled over on to her side and looked me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house, the little clothing she had on had tiny little rips and tears in it, and she looked utterly perplexed.

For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered my vocation so I said, “Can I help you?”

“Honey, I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and a twinkle in her eye.

I slowly offered her my hand, and as I picked her up from the ground she said, “You’re wondering how I got here. Well, so am I. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the 4th of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there. I tried to walk home, but I lost my phone, my wallet, and I think I’m still drunk, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking spot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

We wobbled across the lot arm in arm and I could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me as they drove by. It took an inordinate amount of time to make it from her napping location to my car, and we had to stop no less than three times for fear that she was going to empty out what she had put in the night before.

Eventually, I struggled to get her buckled safely in and asked if she would be able to guide me to her house. To which she replied, “You should have been there last night! The lights and colors were just like illuminating.”

So I asked again, and she responded by pointing with her index finger toward the main road.

“Wonderful,” I thought, “directions by charades.”

We reversed out of the parking lot and I followed her finger across town. 

At one point, as we neared the top of a hill, she slowly raised her hands up above her head and shouted, “Woooooo I love this part of the ride!”

When we passed by the police station, she sank as deep as possible into the seat until her feet were up on the dashboard and she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets which she either could not read or remember. But eventually, we pulled up in front of a nondescript house and she let out a sigh of acceptance.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.” 

We sat in the car in uncomfortable silence while she looked out the window at her future with a strange and detached look on her face.

“So, are you a pastor or something?”

“That’s what they call me on Sundays.”

“Do you do this kind of stuff a lot?”

“Honestly, not enough. What about you?”

“All the time.”

And with that she opened up the door and fell out of my car. She promptly picked herself up and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door all the while whistling a strange rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

She made it to the front door, and patted down on her non-existent pockets for her keys that she didn’t have, and began banging on the door until someone let her in. 

And then I drove back to church.

For the rest of the day I felt pretty good about myself. I had been the Good Samaritan. I only later realized that I never even bothered to ask for her name. 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus ends his parabolic encounter with this great question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

And immediately we know how this story is supposed to work. The Samaritan is the good neighbor, and we are supposed to be the good neighbor to our neighbors. But, who really wants to be like that?

The Samaritan is not a very good example, at least he’s one that we should be careful of imitation. He’s a fool! He wastes his good money on a no good stranger in a ditch, gives him his own ride, and then has the gall to put him up in a swanky hotel without receiving anything in return. 

Moreover, Samaritans are outcasts. He is a loser who comes to deal with another loser. His actions are crazy and reprehensible. He lays down whatever his life might’ve been for someone he doesn’t even know, simply because he, as an outcast, has found solidarity with another in the dump that life has offered him.

The loser has found his truest neighbor, another loser.

Which, incidentally, is what the whole gospel is about – Jesus came to save a lost and losing world, by becoming lost and defeated. But in this world of ours, populated by losers, all of us are hopelessly committed to a version of the world that is obsessed with winning, by being the best, by looking out for ourselves.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But it is tragic, because grace works only in the midst of being able to recognize how badly we need it.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus wanted to be a better motivational speaker he would’ve ended the parable thusly: Don’t be like the Samaritan; it will ruin your life. You will become a mockery among your friends, you will be a loser.

But Jesus isn’t a motivational speaker, he is the Lord.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the end of the parable: Which person was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? But what if there’s a better question… and what if that better question is this: Which person in the story is Jesus?

The central figure, contrary to just about every version of this story ever told, or ever preached, is not the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is simply one of three people who actually figures out what it means to be a properly good neighbor.

Jesus in the story, the one who demands all of our focus and attention, the one to whom the three are either neighborly or not, is the one down in the ditch.

Jesus is free among the dead – He is the one who, again and again, is with the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.

If we want the parable to tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan, which it certainly does, then that’s fine.

But if that’s all the Good Samaritan is good for, then it isn’t very good.

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it: “The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstance imitate is the only thing that can save us.”

Jesus is the one down in the ditch. Jesus, the Lord of lords, has condescended himself to our miserable existence and can be found in the place of our own ditch-ness and suffering.

This story is but another resounding reminder that we don’t have to go looking for Jesus, or even that we have to be like the Good Samaritan to earn Jesus.

It’s that Jesus was willing to do for us what we could not, and would not, do for ourselves or our neighbors.

Jesus has moved in next door knowing that we, his neighbors, are a bunch of losers.

And that’s Good News. 

The Scandal Of Grace

Romans 5.1-2

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

We’re all constantly caught up in the business of self-justification. It happens in ways big and small and in ways seen and unseen. We self-justify grabbing that one extra cookie (or drink) because we had a tough day at work. We self-justify our imperfect families with perfectly coordinated family portraits on Instagram. On and on and on.

Everyone is trying to earn their salvation with what we in the church call works-righteousness. Whenever we face a dose of the truth about who we are, we desperately desire to make it right. The problem lies in the fact that no matter what good we do, we can’t actually justify (make right) who we are. Every person knows (at least in some way) what he or she should do, from keeping up with the dishes to not having an affair, and we fail to do it.

A long time ago there was this really great guy who was a model citizen, he worshiped regularly, and he followed all the rules. His rule-following was such that, whenever he encountered those who broke the law, he put them in their place. And then, one day, he was traveling to a nearby town to continue a campaign against a new, irreverent, and even dangerous religious sect, when he was encountered by its founder and blinded for his inability to see the truth right in front of him.

His name was Paul.

After a particularly moving moment with a man named Ananias who, through the power of the Spirit, restored Paul’s sight, Paul was set on a trajectory that changed everything.

He met with other Christians, was compelled to spread the Good News, and eventually helped to start Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Through prayer, the Spirit, and perhaps a love of the scriptures, Paul discerned a few things about the faith: The message of the Gospel is meant for all people, our sins really are forgiven by the only One who can forgive them, and we have new lives to live because we have been set free from all sorts of things including self-mastery, moralism, and even death.

The majority of the New Testament is, in fact, Paul’s letters written to the early Christian communities outlining what this faith is all about. However, it is always worth nothing that Paul is not Jesus. And yet, perhaps it is helpful to note that Paul taught what Jesus did.

Therefore, we hold the example of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels with Paul’s epistles so that we might begin to understand how the Gospel is, oddly enough, a person.

In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul spends the first four chapters outlining the human condition and our need for God’s divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And then, right at the beginning of chapter five, he drops the hammer of the Gospel: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

It’s a scandalous proclamation.

What makes it scandalous is that the Gospel has nothing to do with our morality or our goodness or our virtue. Paul shouts across the centuries that the Gospel, Jesus, is something that is done to us. But, for people who live and breathe in a world run by meritocracy, we scarcely know what it means to receive something like grace. That’s why the parables always pop the circuit breakers of our brains.

Grace really is scandalous because it, to use Jesus’ words, pays the early bird just as much as the perennially late fool. Grace runs into the streets of life toward every prodigal reeking of their mistakes and throws a party no matter what. Grace is the terrible shepherd who leaves behind the well-behaved and good-listening ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who got lost. 

We stand in scandalous grace not because we earn it or deserve it but because God delights in giving it to us. It is one hilarious gift that we can never ever repay, and it also happens to be the reason we can call the Good News good. 

Or, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this’ and everything is already finished.”

The Politics of Pentecost

Acts 2.17-18

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old mens shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 

When I first started in ministry I received my first office visitor before I preached my first sermon. There were still boxes upon boxes of books scattered across the floor when a well dressed gentleman gently knocked on the door. I remember being lost in thought about what to say from the pulpit on my introductory Sunday when the man offered his hand and said, “I’m your local state representative, and as one of our community’s leads I want to welcome you to this place we call home.”

I was flabbergasted. What a remarkably kind and thoughtful thing to do! Here I was, a 25 year old freshly graduated seminarian and he took the time to find me and welcome me. 

We talked for a few minutes about the town before he announced that he needed to return to his own office. I thanked him profusely for the visit and just before he walked down the hall he said something I’ll never forget. With a casual grin he looked over his shoulder and said, “I always appreciate my pastors putting in a good word from the pulpit if you know what I mean.”

And with that he walked away.

Here in the United States we operate under the auspices of the (so-called) separation of church and state. It is certainly a worthy goal, but it is not necessarily present in reality; the church and the state are forever getting intertwined.

In most communities church fellowship halls are voting locations, political candidates are often quick to share their religious affiliations, and we put all sorts of theological language on political items like currency, legislature, and judicial proceedings (to name a few).

Even though the country was founded on a separation of church and state, Christians in the US have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between the country and the Lord, something that scripture (and Jesus) calls idolatry.

We might not like to think about the church as a political entity, and we might even lament those moments when the church hedges a little too close to the supposed line, but the church is a politic. And it’s Jesus’ fault.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he has the gall to say, “This scripture is being fulfilled in me.”

This first century wandering rabbi starts it all off with promises about prison reform, political liberation, and economic redistribution!

Later, Jesus enters the holiest of cities on the back of a donkey like a revolutionary. The crowds welcome the King of kings with songs and shouts of resistance to the powers that be, expecting him to lead an armed rebellion against the empire. 

The following day Jesus strolls through the temple courts and drives out the merchants for their economic chicanery. Next he condemns the tax system, ridicules the abuses of the religious authorities, and predicts the destruction of the indestructible temple. 

For this, and more, he is arrested, condemned, and executed by the religious authorities and the political authorities together. Moreover, the sign adorned on the cross, Jesus’ instrument of capital punishment, reads: “This is the King of the Jews.”

And then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh filling the people of God with a bold and wondrous hope for things not yet seen: a strange new world. A strange new world in which slaves are set free, outcasts are summoned home, and everything is turned upside down. 

It might seem banal to confess Jesus as Lord, but it is not just a personal opinion. Confessing the lordship of Christ is quite possibly the most political statement a Christian can ever make. For, if Jesus is lord then no one else is.

Every year we mark the occasion of Pentecost in worship because the political ramifications are still echoing across the centuries. The same Spirit poured out on Pentecost fills us today with the strength and the wisdom and the grace to be God’s people in the world. Without the church, the world cannot know how beautiful things could be

On Pentecost we are reminded that before we are anything else, we are Jesus people. No matter how much we think we are bonded by the names on our bumper stickers or by the animals  (elephants and donkeys) of our political persuasions, nothing can hold a flame to the bonds formed in the waters of baptism and by the most political animal of all: the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Which is all just another way of saying: On Pentecost things get political, and it’s all Jesus’ fault.

Strangely Warmed

John 17.23

I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Why the United Methodist Church?

This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”

For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.

I follow Jesus, not John Wesley. 

And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on. 

There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738

What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!

I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things. 

While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference. 

If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.

A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth.