Back To The Middle

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

My college campus ministry was going nowhere. 

We had a solid band that played some of the newest Christian music.

We tried exciting and new initiatives to reach out to other students on campus in order to get them to join us for worship on Sunday evenings.

We even tried to create series around relevant topics like recent blockbusters or culturally important topics.

But we just had the same people showing up week after week.

We never had a real conversation about it, but there was a feeling in the air that if we weren’t growing, then we were failing. 

Every summer I’d go home to work at the church that raised me, and every fall I would return to school with new ideas about how we could get new people. 

And sometimes it worked. We’d be setting up for worship in one of the local United Methodist Churches that let us use their space for free, and a college student would walk in explaining that he/she wanted to check us out.

Our spirits would soar in joyful hope and anticipation, but then of course we would be incredibly nervous for the rest of the service hoping they’d come back next week.

But they almost never did.

During my final semester of undergrad we decided that the only way to really reach new people was to start over. 

Literally.

We scrapped everything and began with a clean slate. 

The ways we had been “doing church” no longer worked, so we decided it was time to make a new church.

The core group met over at a bagel place in town, and even though I was soon-to-graduate, I attended in order to offer my opinions about how the church might re-create itself.

Our leader pulled out a pad of paper and started by saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to create a list of what we believe. We’ll put it all together, put it online, and that way people will know what to expect when they come join us.”

Perfect. Back to the basics.

So we went around the table and people started throwing out their ideas…

I believe that the church should welcome everyone no matter what.

I agree, but I also believe that the church should have expectations of what it means to live like a Christian.

I believe that the people who join us should agree to believe what we believe.

By the time it came to me to say something we already had three pages front in back with a list of our beliefs. 

And almost none of them had anything to do with God.

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Now I would remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the gospel that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

Christ died for our sins.

He was buried in the ground.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. 

Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The least of the apostles.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not our behavior.

Not even a list of beliefs.

But a story.

The story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again.

And he appeared to the disciples.

Now, I know that if you’re like me, you’re heard this story a lot. So much so that we just accept it as is without giving it much thought. But, seriously, what was Jesus thinking?

He is resurrected and shows up for Peter! You know, the one who denied him!

Don’t you think Jesus would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective? For maximum results in spreading this new religion, you don’t waste your time talking to someone off the street, let alone a denier. You’ve got to go to the movers and shakers, the powers and the principalities. 

The ones who get things done.

If Jesus really wanted to shake up the world, why didn’t he go straight to the top?

Our Jesus, the one whom we love and adore, didn’t go to the emperor’s palace, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple waiting for crowds to gather in wonderment and awe.

The resurrected Jesus showed up right in front of the very people who abandoned him.

Think about it for just a moment – The most incredible thing in the history of history has taken place, and Jesus appears before the same ragtag group of would-be followers who misunderstood him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his very betrayers.

To us.

Of all the people, Peter and Paul are the ones to whom the resurrection is made as clear as day. Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer. A denier of the faith, and a killer of the faith.

It would have been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but the Good News is that he rose for them, and for us.

Churches are forever trying to figure out how to reach new people. They’ll take a good hard look in the mirror, and trim back the fat of whatever it is they were doing so that only the lean meat remains.

On Sundays the music is always easy to sing, everyone wears comfortable clothing, and the pastor will tell a story about how to find something better for your lives.

Not that far from us is a relatively new church that meets in a movie theater on Sunday mornings. They have a rock band that sets up by the front, and when the appointed time arrives they jam away for three to four songs while the words appear on the screen.

And when they finish a man will appear, not in person, but on the big screen as well and he will talk for 15-20 minutes about how God wants you to be the best you. 

The band will stand back up for one more song, and then its over.

And they are bursting at the seams.

Week after week more people show up wanting to know how they can make their lives better, and week after week more people have to sit in the aisles because they run out of space.

And the church should be doing what it can to reach new people, even those who are caught up in the never-ending desire to make their lives better.

Except that’s not really who we are, at least according to the Bible. The Gospel isn’t about how we can get better by getting closer to God, though it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Gospel is about how groups of bad people come together to cope with their failure to be good.

But that doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t drive people in through the doors. It doesn’t ring well as a promotional slogan or fit nicely on a bumper sticker. It doesn’t compel people to go home and invite all of their neighbors back for next Sunday.

And yet the story of Jesus Christ doesn’t revolve around people trying to find God and find themselves along the way. 

Over and over again the Gospel is the truth that God keeps seeking us despite our worst, and even our best, intentions.

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God is the shepherd who doesn’t shrug his shoulder when one of the fold is missing – God goes out and does whatever it takes, risks everything if necessary, to find that missing sheep.

God is the father who does not sigh in disappointment about the wayward son. He reaches down into the muck and mire of life in order to grab the prodigal son so that he may rejoice with his father forever.

God is the sower, who regardless of how bad the weather looks or the soil appears, keeps tossing out seeds in the hopes that they will grow into new life.

We Christians might like to think that we’re good, and always getting better; that we have special access to something the world otherwise ignores. 

But at the heart of being a Christian is the recognition that something has happened to us, in spite of us. The risen Lord came back to us.

We might not be able to pinpoint it, or even describe it, but we are here simply because Jesus did not give up on us, nor did he abandon us. 

Jesus found us, grabbed us, and forgave us.

What is of first importance for Christ’s church? 

To the poor and wretched and struggling Corinthians, who were failing at being the church, arguing daily, and refusing to welcome the other as brother and stranger as sister, Paul takes them back to the middle – to the decisive and most important moment in the middle of history – Easter.

Paul reminds them, and us, that when the gathering of Christians happens the risen Christ finds them. Not the other way around.

If we are honest, a decisively difficult thing these days, we like Paul, are the least of the apostles, unfit to even be called apostles. 

In the last ten days, our state has seen its share of controversy. The governor’s medical school yearbook surfaced with a picture of a man in black face and a man wearing a KKK robe in hood all on his page.

The second in command, our Lieutenant Governor, has been hit with a number of credible accusations about sexual assault.

And the third in command, our Attorney General, also admitted to having worn blackface in the past.

That’s just Virginia, and it’s only the three most powerful political figures in Virginia, and that’s only in the last week and a half.

I could go on and on, and I have plenty of times, I love picking on politicians from the pulpit. It’s easy. And it’s easy because we so deify those who hold office. Governors, Representatives, Presidents, Senators, we hold them to a standard that we ourselves would not.

And then we are shocked to discover that they are flawed.

That they are like us.

And the great theological smack in the face, is that God died in Jesus Christ for them too. 

So we can do what we think we need to do. We can change what we do on Sunday mornings. We can make it more appealing (whatever that means). We can even blow up the church and start over from scratch. 

But of first importance, at the very heart of what it means to be who we are, is a story.

And not just a story, or even our story, but the story.

The story of God. 

Who came back for us. Amen. 

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Do Pastors Fail?

Yep.

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I was recently invited to join the one and only Todd Littleton on the Patheological podcast to discuss the strange, and often avoided, subject of pastoral failure. Many of us are all too familiar with the failure made manifest in places of church leadership like adultery and embezzlement. Those I would categorize as moral failures. But there are other failures as well.

During our conversation Todd and I cover a number of the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years, and how I’ve grown from them. I fundamentally believe our mistakes make us better pastors/Christians AND that we need communities to help us see our failures and push us toward better solutions. Otherwise we pastors run the risk of falling into a frightening statistical category: 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month in this country never to return again.

If you would like to listen to our conversation, you can do so here: Pastors Fail?

I highly suggest subscribing to Todd’s podcast – he strives to provide conversations for the pastor/theologian and it has been a tremendous help to me in the past.

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to you neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

 

We announced this sermon series a couple months back, and ever since then a number of you have expressed your excitement about the possibility of confronting these Christianisms. Whether you were in the middle of suffering and someone said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or a friend tried to explain how your struggles were given to you by the Lord because “everything happens for a reason” or any number of situations, these dumb things that Christians say are things all of us have heard.

However, some of you have also expressed your concern about today’s statement, the last one in the series, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It sounds so right doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

We can all agree that Christians say a lot of dumb things, but this is a good thing to say, right?

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In my experience, when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually referring to homosexuality. For many, it is a kind and Christian way to say, “I love my gay friends, but I hate that they’re gay.” In this post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, it is a way for some of us to cover our true feelings while appearing congenial toward those whom we disagree with about sexuality.

Though recently, when I’ve heard people say it they are now using it with regard to the realm of politics. It is amazing how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about homosexuality has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country. “Well, I know she voted for that traitor Hillary Clinton, but I love her anyway.” Or “Donald Trump is ruining our country, but I love him anyway.” “I love my brother, but he can be a bleeding liberal.” “I love my sister, but she’s so conservative she’s off the political spectrum.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty hard to hate another’s sin, without harming the sinner.

What is sin? We don’t talk about it anymore. Pastors like me would rather talk about God’s loving nature, than God’s judgment. We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors, than to tell you to tell your neighbor they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking to us today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about; sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, and repent or burn forever.

We’re afraid of sin. And not sin as a behavior; we’re afraid to talk about it because it makes us, and our congregations, uncomfortable. I hear again and again that people don’t want to leave church feeling miserable about their lives and their behavior, so preachers like me water down the gospel and we avoid even mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin. We preachers, and you Christians, can’t handle the topic of sin like we once could.

But what is it?

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically means “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God. Sin can be any choice, or lack of choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the thing: We all do it. All of us sin. From the guy standing before you in a white robe, to the decades long Sunday School teacher, to the child drawing on his bulletin, to the person in the pew across the aisle, to you. We are all sinners.

We think, say, and do things we should not. And we fail to think, say, and do things we should.

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Love the sinner. Of course we are supposed to love the sinner. Jesus did it all the time. Most of his ministry was about loving sinners. The problem is that Jesus does not call his disciples to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

This is an important difference. The difference being the starting point. If we say we are going to love sinners, we will view other people more like sinners and less like neighbors. It automatically puts us into a place of judgment where we are the righteous, and they are not.

Loving sinners also furthers the problematic identity problem where by we understand and identify others by their mistakes. We label people by their sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, and even regardless of frequency, we still call people things like cheaters, adulterers, and liars.

Or, to put it another way: Instead of seeing our neighbors as our neighbors, we judge them and identify them by which political candidate’s name was on a sign in their front yard.

A while back one of my friends was starting a new job fresh out of college. He was understandably nervous when he entered the office building for the first time and made his way to a cubicle near the corner of the room. He quietly unloaded his boxes of pertinent materials onto his desk and set up pictures of his family and friends while other employees walked idly by.

There were signs that someone had used the cubicle before him: an accidental scratch across the desk, a piece of discarded paper in the trashcan, and finger smudges on the computer monitor. But other than that, the cubicle was empty.

He worked his first full day under the weight of focus, though a few people came by to introduce themselves. And when it was time to go home he packed his bag and opened the top drawer to grab his pen when he noticed a post-it note near the back. Without thinking much about it, he grabbed it and read three big words: DO NOT TRUST. And underneath those words were the names of five people from the office.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard he tried to forget the note, no matter how hard he tried to trust the people in spite of what he read, his entire perspective had been reshaped by those three words.

The same happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. We should always try to love them, but we can love them even more if we see them first as our brothers and sisters and less as sinners in our midst.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We’re good at seeing the sin in others. That’s what Facebook is for! So we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

Jesus used this expression because he knew that the disciples would struggle with the tendency to judge others. So instead of loving the sinner, perhaps it’s better to say “I am a sinner, and I ‘m trying love my neighbor.”

But we still have to face the end, “hate the sin.”

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. Jesus routinely gathered with them to do what we will do in a few minutes, he broke bread with them. Jesus gave him the most precious gift he had to offer, his time. And then he told them to follow him.

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Jesus, instead, offered forgiveness.

He encountered all kinds of people who were defined by their choices, and he saw them for who they were in spite of their sins. His love was such that it knew no bounds. It was enough.

            But we are not like Jesus. We fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We have logs in our eyes and say things like, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

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There was a man who died, and upon his death he arrived at the pearly gates in heaven. He looked all around and soaked up the sights of the fluffy clouds and he was so excited to see people just on the other side of the gate that he had missed for so long. He wanted to run straight to them but there was a line leading up to St. Peter. So the man got in line and waited patiently for his turn.

He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but as he got closer he couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversations between St. Peter and the soon to be residents of heaven. “Oh you did so much for that soup kitchen!” “You’re the one who read scripture out loud in church every week, very good, very good.” And so on. But when the man’s turn came, St. Peter looked down in the Book of Life and then said, “Yeah you were a believer, but you skipped the ‘not being a jerk about it’ part.”

Saying, and living by, “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us jerks. It means the log in our eye is so large that we are unable from seeing others as brothers and sisters. It means that our own sinfulness blinds us from truly loving.

There is sin in this world. People will make the wrong choice, they will choose evil. We will make sinful decisions; we will avoid doing the things we know we should do. But instead of rallying together and focusing on all the sins and problems of other people, instead of flocking to the Internet and like-minded dinner parties to declare the sins of the other, we all need to take a good hard look in the mirror. We need to recognize the log in our own eyes before we dare point out the speck in another.

Because Jesus, looks right into our hearts and says “I love you, log and all.”

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of, God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees our self-righteousness and indignation and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God sees the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God knows the ways we lie to our spouses and our children, God witnesses the depth of our depravity and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God was there with us in the voting booth, God hears the sighs we utter in response to someone on the other side of the political aisle, God knows how we really feel and says, “I love you, log and all.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” We say it. We read it. We might even live by it. But we should just stop with the word “love.”

Love.

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Not Hallmark love. Not Valentine’s Day love. But love like Jesus. That might be good enough. Because loving like Jesus does not mean turning away from the sinners in our midst. It means walking up to a crowd of people who are about to do something terrible and saying, “Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!”

It means encountering the beauty of the Lord and responding with the truest words we can ever say: “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.”

It means being humble enough to seek out those whom we have wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

It means caring for those on the margins regardless of the decisions they’ve made or the sins they’ve committed.

It means reaching out to the people who we disagree with most not to change their mind, but to offer them the same thing Jesus offer us, time.

So the next time we say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Let’s just stop with love. Amen.