The Circumference of the Kingdom

1 Corinthians 10.10

Now I appeal to you, brother and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

We were in the middle of nowhere North Carolina and I was receiving a tour of the town from a local clergy person. He pointed out the local watering hole, the 7-11, and the mortician’s brick and mortar funeral parlor.

From my vantage point in the front passenger seat of the aging preacher’s beat up truck it looked like every building was slowly falling apart and no one was bothered to do anything about it. Until we got to the end of the tour and there was a huge, recently leveled, field and construction equipment was strewn about in every direction.

“What’s this going to be?” I asked.

The preacher said, “The new baptist church.”

“What happened to the old baptist church?”

“It’s still here, we passed it a few blocks back. The church got into a big knock-down-drag-out fight about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. So half the church left to start their own.”

“Do they have a name for the new church?”

“Yeah, they’re calling themselves Harmony Baptist.”

Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of Jesus, that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind with the same purpose.”

In other words, “For the love of everything holy, please stop being so stupid and start getting along with each other!”

It’s notable that, since the very beginning of the church, we’ve been in conflict. The book of Acts is filled with one vignette after another of the church being churchy with their disagreements. All of Paul’s letters, in some way, shape, or form, beg the recipients to start acting like the body of Christ into which they were baptized.

And the church comes by it honest.

For, to start, the church is filled with people like us: a bunch of no good dirty rotten scoundrels (even if we don’t want to admit it). But, more importantly, conflict is actually what makes the church the church!

Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world was filled with dissonance. The Pharisees and religious elites were quick with their accusations of blasphemy, the powers and principalities thought the only way to stop Jesus was the cross, and even the disciples were forever rebuking the Lord for his various proclamations and actions. 

If there’s one thing we can count on in the church, it’s conflict. 

No church has even found a way to follow the crucified God free of fiction.

And yet, friction is, often, what leads to transformation!

Case in point: the early church struggled with the rapid rise of Gentiles in their midst and had to figure out how expansive God’s kingdom really was. And, at the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the church formally stated that no matter what scripture said, Christ’s salvation went beyond the bounds of Judaism. Therefore, matters of religious law such as circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were no longer required for those who followed Jesus.

Today, Jesus still refuses to leave us to our own devices and thoughts and even dreams about who the church is for. Jesus delights in sending people into our lives that we would never have picked on our own. And then, because he has a sense of humor, Jesus will see fit to make sure we read some of his words in church on Sunday like, “Love your enemies.”

We know that Jesus is at the center of what we call the kingdom of God, but we cannot know the circumference of the kingdom. In other words, we can’t decide who Jesus is for.

Or, as Barth put it, “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”

Or, as John Wesley put it, “Salvation for all!”

God’s grace is ever expanding and never-ending. Remember: Jesus commands us to go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Good News. And, as such, we can expect arguments, differences, and even divisions to sprout up again and again. Perhaps that’s why God keeps inviting us back to the table, pardoning us for our mistakes and shortcomings, and offering the body and the blood that makes all of this possible in the first place.

It’s not easy being the church, but nothing important ever is. 

We Begin (And End) With Grace

1 Corinthians 1.3

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.

I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.

I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!

Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.

What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it. 

Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”

In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”

Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace. 

It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems. 

God is perfect; we are not.

God is holy; we are not.

We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God. 

And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God. 

Don’t Look Back

Isaiah 42.8-9

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new. 

One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable. 

Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future. 

There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible. 

An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”

Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.

Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”

In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.

“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.

Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?” 

“What things?”

“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”

The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see

They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope. 

Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.

Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!

Someone Reigns!

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Barth died a few hours later in his sleep. In the days that followed Thurneysen explained how their conversation dealt with various situations in the world and that Barth’s final words were:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still Someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command! That’s why I’m not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!”

On Christmas Eve, we are reminded that to be Christian is to be different. The great gift of God into the world in the person of Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. We, then, have the courage to rebel against the insidious powers of despair because we have the means of grace and the hope of glory! We have Jesus Christ! Jesus reigns! Thanks be to God.

The Reality of Christmas

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. 

People come to church for all sorts of reasons. Some come because they always come and they can’t imagine doing anything else. Others arrive because of an invitation. And still yet, others enter because they are at the end of their rope and they need something they can put their hope in. 

Christmas, in particular, is a time when a lot of people come to church (some who don’t normally attend) for sentimental and nostalgic reasons. And, as such, they don’t want to encounter the reality of the world – they want sanctuary from it. Which, to be fair, is a worthy reason to show up for worship. And yet, to deny the reality of life furthers these strange assumptions about the church as a place that exists separate from the challenges of life. 

It’s important to remember that the context of the Christmas story in the strange new world of the Bible is a world very much like our own where things are not as they ought to be. 

Put another way, God in Christ arrives as the answer to the hope of a people who are on the precipice of disaster. That can be, and is, Good News because it points to the God who is real for a real world.

Otherwise, Christmas becomes yet another holiday that merely distracts us from what is really going on.

There’s an image that circulates this time of year that always captures my attention. It shows a modern rendering of Joseph with a pregnant Mary searching for a place to stay. Amidst all the perfectly sterile renderings of the Holy Family, with their immaculately clean clothes and glowing baby, this image stands in stark contrast. Moreover, the more time you spend with the image, the more details you notice. Such as: the advertisement for “Weisman” cigarettes, Mary’s “Nazareth High School” hooded sweatshirt, and the tiny weed as the new shoot from the stump of Jesse poking through the sidewalk. 

The image is decisively real. It renders the holy family in the truth of what the world does to those who have no hope for tomorrow. Which is precisely why God comes into the world as Jesus Christ, taking on our flesh, revealing the real reality of our existence.

The scandal of the Gospel is not just that God comes to save us this way, but that God chooses to save us at all. It takes a whole lot of Christmas courage to confess that we have done things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone things we ought to have done. And yet, when we can confess the condition of our condition, when we can admit Isaiah’s truth that we are people who live in a land of deep darkness, then Christ’s light can truly shine. 

The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospel, is that no matter what you have going on in your life, whether good or bad, God is with you in the midst of it. The hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, and even the candles we light are a witness to the One who comes to save us. May the Lord reveal the reality of Christmas to us yet again this year, that we might be people who receive the light, and hope, named Jesus Christ. 

The Naughty List

There’s a lot of good music to listen to this time of year both inside, and outside, the church. When the congregation belts out O Come, O Come, Emmanuel it brings tears to my eyes, just as Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” can make me extra nostalgic for Christmases from the past.

But for as many good songs as there are this time of year, there are also some awful songs as well. And perhaps none are worse than “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” (If that song is your absolute favorite, then I apologize for the rest of this)

What we worship and celebrate during Advent is the antithesis of what that song conveys. Santa Claus may be watching your each and every move in order to reward you (or punish you) on Christmas, but Jesus arrives regardless of whether we’re on the naughty list or the nice list. Though, spoiler warning, we’re all on the naughty list, which is why Jesus is born into the world in the first place! We need all the help we can get!

And, thankfully, as Isaiah reminds us, we remain loved by God even when we knowingly choose to do the things we know we shouldn’t. In other words, the real gift of Christmas can never be taken away because Jesus Christ is coming to town!

Christmas Is Where We Come From

Isaiah 7.14

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

I’m a sucker for book recommendations. Whether it’s a passing comment in a conversation, or a deliberate “you should read this book,” I’m very quick to add titles to my Amazon shopping cart. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many books out there, that I’d rather read those recommended titles than choose something on my own. And, here at the end of the calendar year, there are all sorts of lists of “books of the year” that people are encouraged to purchase.

And my Amazon cart gets fuller and fuller.

Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, was recently asked in an interview to make a book recommendation. I think the interviewer assumed he would offer The Lord of the Rings because Colbert is an avid fan of Tolkien. But instead this is what Colbert said: “The Bible. But I’m not saying it for religious purposes. In a Western context, there is almost nothing from about the 4th century on that isn’t influenced by that book. Regardless of whether or not the book means anything to you, you should read it to know what all the other writers were talking about.” 

In other words, the Bible is where (most) literature comes from.

That’s an interesting claim, and one that is well founded. For instance, the parable of the prodigal son has shown up time and time again in various coming-of-age narratives. The Messianic hero is another recurring theme in western literature. On and on the connections go.

Which means, sometimes we are reading “biblical stories” without realizing they are biblical stories.

And it’s not just literature that the Bible has impacted, our sense of time is fundamentally biblical.

Here’s how Karl Barth put it: 

“The other day I came across a nearly 600-year-old parchment document, with seal affixed. It was the contract for the conveyance of a house, and it was written in the solemn language that was required in such matters even in those days. The date read as follows: ‘Given at Basle on the first Monday after Pope St Urban’s day in the 1371st year counting from the birth of God… Whether or not we know about it or think about it, Christmas reminds us of the secret of our age, our history, and our life. Christmas is where we come from; that is where everything ‘counts’ from.”

The world we inhabit, whether we know it or not (whether we believe it or not) is a product of the Gospel proclaimed every Sunday in the church. From the books we read, to the shows we enjoy, to the watches on our wrists, the One from whom all blessings flow continues to make blessings flow.

Therefore, the Bible is not just some collection of religious texts from long ago. Instead, in lives and breathes and gives meaning to the lives we live in ways seen and unseen. Similarly, Christmas is not just some religious holiday with various rituals that get us from one season to the next. Instead, Christmas makes intelligible the time we are given in our lives.

Or, as Barth put it, “Christmas is where we come from; that is where everything ‘counts’ from.”

Hasten Your Waiting

Matthew 11.2-3
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Waiting is a dirty word, at least to the ears of most Christians (in America). After all, we are a people of action. We are not comfortable to sit idly by while something could be taken care of. In the world of United Methodism, this is inherently part of our DNA as John Wesley is the one who first said, “Never leave anything till tomorrow, which you can do today. And do it as well as possible.”

It is therefore strange and uncomfortable to arrive at church during the Advent season to hear all about the virtues of waiting.

In many ways we blindly stagger toward the word of waiting with connections to waiting to open what is under the tree more than waiting on Jesus. It functions as a trite and helpful little analogy that resonates with parents and children alike. And so long as we’re all patient, we’ll get that for which we hope on Christmas morning.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us want to wait around for anything, let alone presents, the birth of the Savior, or his promised return.

Which makes us, oddly enough, a lot like John the Baptist.

Listen – John is arrested for his various proclamations and acts against the powers and principalities. He “prepared the way of the Lord” out in the wilderness, but then, while behind closed doors, he begins to question his preparations. He sends word by way of his own disciples, “Hey JC, are you really the one? Or are we still in the waiting game?”

Isn’t it odd that John begins to doubt? Surely, the words and deeds of Jesus would be enough to assuage his fear. But, perhaps, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah John was looking for. Even John had his own earthly expectations for what the Anointed One was supposed to do: overthrow the empire.

Except, when Jesus came to live, die, and live again, he did overthrow the empire; the empire of sin and death. 

During Advent we straddle the already but not yet. We see signs of God’s kingdom at work but we also know that not all is as it should be. Therefore, our reluctance to wait is born out of our desire to take matters into our own hands even though some of the most horrific events in history have been done in the name of progress.

We no longer know how to wait. We want to skip to Easter Sunday without having to confront Good Friday and we want Christmas without Advent. And yet all of them, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable, point us to something beyond ourselves: The judged judge has come to be judged in our place. Jesus’ crucifixion, made possible by his incarnation, has accomplished that for which it was purposed.

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Jesus’ crucifixion rattled the very constitution of the universe because death could not hold him. Three days later he is raised. He walks with two former followers on the road to Emmaus, teaching them how to read Scripture. Such instruction was required, because they found it difficult to understand how the one to liberate Israel could end up on a cross.”

Today, it seems we are (still) a people who find it difficult to believe that God would choose to die for us. We’d rather hear about all the things we can do to earn God’s favor than to believe that God favors us regardless of our behavior.

We are not particularly good at waiting because we want to take matters into our own hands. And yet part of the message of Advent is that if it were all up to us, we would fail. We need a Savior who can come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In the end the only thing we have to do is wait, because the rest is up to God.

Advent Lights

Isaiah 2.1

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

I’m a stickler for liturgical purity. That is, I feel very strongly about following the liturgical calendar because God’s time is not our time. Therefore, while the community still rests in the comforts of Thanksgiving this Sunday, we’ve already changed the colors in the sanctuary and shifted our theological mood – it’s Advent! 

Advent is the great beginning of the Christian year during which we stand firmly between the already, but not yet. We explore the scriptures of the Israelites awaiting the Messiah, while also looking forward to the time when Christ returns to make all things new. 

And yet, Advent for me started weeks ago. For as much as I might complain about the stores dragging out Christmas paraphernalia prior to Halloween, we decorate our house way in advance. We do so out of a practical concern since I am busier at this time of year than any other with various church responsibilities, but also because, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent – Advent is who we are.

When the prophet Isaiah paints a picture of the Lord’s house being raised higher than any hill, I think of the joy of the neighborhoods filled with twinkling lights in celebration of the culmination of this season. They provide a different light among times of darkness. However, even the brightest house pales in comparison to the light of the Lord that changes everything.

This Advent, let us rest in between the times, giving thanks for what God has done while also anticipating God making all things new, even us. 

A Liturgy For Thanksgiving

Philippians 4.4-5

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

Thanksgiving is not a liturgical holiday. 

But it could be.

For, what could be more faithful than breaking bread with family (and foes) knowing that Jesus spent his entire ministry doing the same?

And yet, there is a sense in which what happens around the Thanksgiving table is more determinative over our lives than the One who gives us life. Rare is the family that is immune to the political pandering that happens over turkey and mashed potatoes. Gone are the days we could sit back and rejoice without worrying about who will say what and ruin the holiday mood. We, then, approach the table of blessings without feeling like it’s much of a blessing at all.

But what if God is the one calling us together for the explicit purpose of redeeming our Thanksgiving tables? What if this is the year to let forgiveness reign over judgment? What if we took seriously the claim that, as Paul put it, “The Lord is near,” even at the holiday table?

There’s no guarantee that anything good can come out of our Thanksgivings this year, save for the fact that we worship the God of impossible possibility! So keep your eyes and ears open, let your gentleness be known, and rejoice! The Lord is near!

And, in the spirit of bringing a little holiness to a moment that is sometimes devoid of holiness, I’ve put together a little “Thanksgiving Liturgy” that anyone can use. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of faithful clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience…

A Liturgy For Thanksgiving

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name. For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations. 

Meditation:

The delight of Thanksgiving is both in the thing itself, and what it anticipates. So many other holidays come and go and leave us feeling vacant. And yet, upon the conclusion of Thanksgiving, while we put away all the dishes and say our goodbyes, we do so with the knowledge that Advent is knocking at the door, and with it: Christmas! 

Advent is the season of waiting and watching, but what we’re waiting and watching for is already present at our Thanksgiving tables. The splendor of Advent is made manifest in the One who breaks bread with us whenever we break bread: Jesus. 

Therefore, let us rejoice in our Thanksgivings, much like we do when we come to the Lord’s Table in church. Advent is already around us, hiding in the basement, laughing upstairs, and dancing in the living room. The unknown day and hour of it bursting into our reality is something worth celebrating, not fearing. 

Put another way: God is not our mother-in-law who comes over once a year checking to make sure we’ve kept the house in order and that we haven’t chipped her wedding-present china. Instead, God is like our delightful uncle, who barges in unannounced (and perhaps uninvited!) with a baguette under one arm, and a bottle of wine in the other. We do need to wait and watch for God, but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun. 

Prayer:

Lord, free us from fear and worry that, trusting in your goodness, we may always praise your mighty deeds and give you thanks for the bounty of your gifts. Amen.