Preaching To Strangers

Matthew 22.36

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”

And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)

However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.

Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.

But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.

Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe. 

This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.

Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)

The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.

Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).

This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.

This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds. 

Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world. 

There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.

As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.

(Almost) Leaving Church

Psalm 25.1

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 

We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.

He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.

I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.

We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.

“So, how did God call you to all of this?”

It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer. 

And I’ve heard them all.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.

I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.

Or, at least I thought I was.

Because he didn’t answer my question.

Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”

“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”

“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”

“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.” 

“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”

Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.

He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”

“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”

God Won’t

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Doomscrolling.

Have you heard of it?

It’s falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with negative content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. 

Basically, instead of retreating to the binge-worthy content of Netflix many of us are actually binge-watching the world flush down the drain.

We can’t unplug or disconnect ourselves from the headlines – COVID cases spiking across the country, a horrific blast rocking Beirut, social unrest resulting in broken buildings and broken people.

And, like slowing down on the interstate past a wreck, we can help ourselves from staring.

We’ve become addicted to the world of bad news so much so that a new word was created to help explain it – doomscrolling.

And it’s not just what we’re doing on social media – it’s how we’re having our conversations with friends, family, and even neighbors.

Did you see the latest numbers for the virus?

Can you believe he went golfing again during all of this?

What kind of idiot posts a video of a Corvette while preparing to run for president?

So it goes.

And, I must confess dear online worshippers, even I am not immune to the bizarre charms of doomscrolling. I find myself, at times, scrolling through the likes of Twitter and Facebook only to discover more and more bad news. 

Last weekend the city of Staunton, on the other side of Virginia, experienced heavy rains in a very short period of time that resulted in horrific flooding. Restaurants, businesses, homes all filled with water that destroyed everything.

The videos and the pictures have been devastating. And they felt all the more pressing for me personally because Staunton is where I was first appointed before coming here. The restaurants and businesses were those that I frequented, and now they’re all navigating through a completely unknown future.

So I was scrolling through the videos and images, reading the comments from various community members offering support, and then I noticed a comment that seemed to keep cropping up on every different post. No matter how bad or grim the situation appeared, someone felt the need to write, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It is my sincere hope and prayer that, in the midst of a moment of pain or fear or grief, no one has ever dismissively said to you, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

But chances are, someone has.

It is near the top of the list of Christian expressions used when we don’t know what else to say and, spoiler warning, it’s NOT in the Bible.

Sure, there are plenty of verses about how God will see us through to the other side, about how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and so on. But the specificity of claiming that God won’t give us more than we can handle implies a whole lot about God that it absolutely shouldn’t.

To begin with, “God won’t give you…” immediately sets up a theological understanding that God, you know the author of salvation, gives every single little thing to us, on purpose; the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the love and the pain.

Which means, according to the expression, God sows our suffering.

As has been said from this place on a number of occasions, if God delights in our suffering, if God purposely sends bad things to happen to us in order to punish us or teach us a lesson or make us stronger, then God isn’t worthy of our worship. 

God, absolutely, rejoices with us when we rejoice and God, absolutely, weeps with us when we weep, but that’s not the same thing as God authoring and willing every little thing that happens to us.

God is not some sadist who rejoices in our tribulations.

God is not an architect of divine destruction.

God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what difficult things he should send for us to handle.

Let me put it this way: Can you imagine reaching out to a neighbor whose house just burned to the ground only to pithily remark, “God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

Maybe you can imagine it, maybe you’ve even said it to someone before. And, chances are, dear listeners, you’re pretty decent people, and if you ever said something like that you were only doing so because you wanted to cheer up the person suffering, or you wanted them to believe they could make it through, or you believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

And we should try to comfort those in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and grief. 

We should help in ways both seen and unseen.

But the more we say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” the more we make God into monster and the more we place the burdens of the world entirely on one person’s shoulder.

Jesus has been doing his Jesus thing for a little bit. Been baptized by his cousin in the river Jordan, called some of the first disciples, and word has started to spread about this Messiah man.

Did you hear the he healed Peter’s mother-in-law?

What kind of Kingdom is he talking about all the time?

And have you seen his followers – what kind of Messiah enlists fishermen?

Jesus moves from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, preaching about a new age and healing the sick all while seeking the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But Jesus needs some rest, so he returns to Capernaum for a spell.

He’s sitting in the house, kicking up his feet, when the whole town shows up at the door looking for a word, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they’ve longed for, yearning for someone to make something of their nothing.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, some friends are milling about, loitering their afternoon away, when word of the Messiah reaches their ears.

And, without taking much time to discuss their plan, they drop everything and run to their friend’s house. They find him like they always do, laying on a mat in the corner of the room, wasting away without the use of his legs.

He can’t even put up a word of protest before the friends are dragging him out of the house because, surely, if anyone can do something about the condition of his condition, Jesus can.

They carry him through the streets on a blanket, knocking people from side to side, but as they arrive in front of the house the crowds are so thick they can’t get any closer.

Ah, but these are no ordinary friends and this is no ordinary day – they take matters into their own hands.

They lift the paralyzed man up onto the closest rooftop, and they cross from house to house until they reach their destination. They dig a hole straight through the roof, and they lower their friend to the Lord.

Jesus, now interrupted from his sermon, looks up to see the spectacle above his head and smiles saying, “Good job! I’m impressed!” 

And then he looks straight into the eyes of the paralytic, having witnessed the faith of his friends, and says, “You are forgiven.”

The strange new world of the Bible is indeed strange.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t berate them for destroying property in the midst of the reckless hope for healing and transformation. Jesus doesn’t wax lyrical about what is and isn’t possible in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t interrogate the paralyzed man about his past and every choice he ever made.

Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness.

The rest of the story includes a rebuttal from the scribes accusing Jesus of blasphemy to which he memorably replied, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? Well, to show you that I really mean business I’m going to say both. Hey formerly paralyzed man! Get outta here and go celebrate with your friends.”

It’s wild stuff.

Jesus delights not only in forgiving the man of his sins (what sins?) but he also restores him to wholeness. 

And why does Jesus do this? Well, Jesus can do whatever Jesus wants, but scripture also dangles out this little thread of the faithfulness of the man’s friends. 

Friends who, in the end, have such a profound hope in what Jesus can do they carry their friend, literally dig through a roof, just so something remarkable might happen.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think about pallbearers when I read this story – those who carry the dead into and out of the church.

I also can’t help myself from considering the many who have carried me during times when I needed it most. Friends, family, and even strangers who, when encountering the condition of my condition, said, “Okay, it’s our turn to carry you for a bit.”

Because whether it’s a friend in need, or a body being put into the ground, when we can’t handle what’s happening in our lives, we need others who can carry us, and who can carry us to Jesus.

Life tends to come at us pretty fast. These days all the more. We might’ve been fed the lie since birth that “we’re in control of our destinies” but a pandemic and economic instability is quick to remind us of the truth – all of us will face things that are more than we can handle, on our own.

So here’s a potential corrective to the statement in question today: It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But when life give you more than you can handle, God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

This acknowledges that tribulations and hardships will occur and that when we go through the muck and mire of life, God will be there in the midst of it with us.

And when those time comes, because they will, it is good and right for us to admit, “You know, I can’t do this by myself – I need help.” There simply are times when we need a doctor, or a financial expert, or a pastor, or a therapist to help us through to the other die.

God does not give us what we can or can’t handle – but God does give us Jesus so that we can handle what life gives us. 

There was a woman who, back in the 90’s, was struggling with a horrible drug addiction and was trying her best to kick the habit all while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. The new mother was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing that every day she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, or that her child would be taken away, or (most frighteningly) maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her. 

So one night, around 2 am, she was lying in the fetal position on the floor desperately trying to will herself into turning her life around. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that he mother had sent in the mail 4 years earlier, back when they were still talking.

The new mother didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, but she knew she couldn’t do it on her own so she grabbed the phone and dialed the number.

A man answered, and the woman blurted out, “I got this number from my mom, do you think maybe you could talk to me?”

She heard some shuffling around on the other line and then the man said, “Uh, yeah. What’s going on?”

She realized right then that she hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even herself, and without thinking much about it she said, “I’m not in a good place and I’m scared.” And she kept going, she told the man about her drug problem, and that she was worried about her baby, and on and on and on.

And the man, well, he listened.

He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

They phone call lasted until the sun started to creep through the blinds and the woman, noticing how long she had been on the phone, said, “Thank you for staying with me, and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verses I should read or something?”

The man laughed, brushed her comment aside, and she interrupted by saying, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you to not hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him nonetheless and they talked until the conversation came to its natural conclusion. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know was possible. She said she discovered, for the first time, that there is love out in the world, some of it being unconditional, and some of it was meant for her.

After that, everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.

When she tell her story she always ends it with this: “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come right in.”

Today we live in a world under the shadow of fear. Between civil unrest, an infectious pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’re all looking to put our hope somewhere. The world puts its hope in human strategies – the belief in progressivism is very tempting! But as Christians, we know that human strategies rarely, if ever, work.

But God is full of impossible possibility. God can make new what no one else can. God can make a way where there is no way.

In the end, that’s what God’s all about. God helps us handle what life gives us through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes it’s through a wrong number.

Sometimes it’s through a group of friends willing to dig through a roof.

God won’t abandon us to our own device. God won’t leave us alone. God won’t let life get the better of us. 

Because when life give us more than we handle, God will help us handle all that we’ve been given. Amen. 

A Necessary Alterity

“The church has become so fully identified with the ‘American Project’ that our writers have had little cause to heed any unique and distinctively Christians witness in the churches.”

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in response to his perceived lack of a (decent) Christian corpus of fiction. And, frankly, I agree with him. Take a look at the “Christian” section in a bookstore and you’re likely to find a various assortment of pseudo-romance-theological novellas, a selection of “How To Get Closer To God” self-help books, and a handful of leftover seminary textbooks.

All of which don’t tell us much about faith, let alone the object of our faith: God.

An exception to this rule is/was Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s fictive tales are some of the most “Christian” pieces of fiction I’ve ever read because they don’t hold any punches. They are, to put it in theological terms, decisively Pauline in that they affirm the depravity of humanity while also pointing to the unrelenting grace of God.

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Just as baptism resembles nothing so much as drowning and eucharist appears as a kind of cannibalism – while both events are the very means of life temporal and everlasting – so will Christian fiction be characterized by a necessary alterity, since the central Christian premise is that the world made and redeemed by God is constantly interrupted and transfigured by revelation.”

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice got together (online) last week to talk through some of these things and if you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A Christian Reading of American Literature

The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 22.1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6.12-23, Matthew 10.40-42). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including canonical preaching, the Bible on a bumper sticker, sacrifices, foolish prayers, obedience to grace, singing the faith, baptismal protests, and memorable zingers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)

Uncomfortable

Matthew 13.1-13

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/835967350&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true Think and Let Think · Uncomfortable

Jesus wasn’t a very good storyteller.

Forgive me Lord, but it’s true.

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are. 

Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable. 

Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables. 

And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story. 

We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.

If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.

But they did.

We did.

Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”

But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.

Instead, he tells stories.

That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.

In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.

Including us.

Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.

And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.

It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.

The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”

“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”

His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”

There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated. 

We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.

We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.

But, that’s not what Jesus does. 

Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him. 

He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.

Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”

Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week. 

For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.

There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race. 

On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations. 

The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.

For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.

The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.

Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”

Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.

“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”

“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”

“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”

But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”

The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.

A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”

So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes. 

The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren. 

Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.

Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible. 

And that work is uncomfortable. 

We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us. 

It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.

Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf. 

We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.

In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears! 

And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway. 

And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.

A Job To Do

Acts 1.6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the time or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. When he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Think and Let Think · A Job To Do

You want to hear about Josh don’t you?

Everybody wants to know about Josh. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, or even what I say, it always comes back to him.

Which, to be fair, makes sense. 

He turned my life upside down before he did it to the world, who wouldn’t want to know more?

But if you want to know about Josh, you need to know what my life was like before he showed up.

I was happy.

Well, that’s not true. But I was really good at making it seem like I was happy. 

You know the whole married, kids, nice job, mortgage, decent neighborhood. I traveled a lot for work back then and I was a frequent guest a particular airport bar. I’d be coming in, or going out, or not really knowing the difference when I would sit down and the bartender knew what to bring before I could even ask for it.

And it was during one such barstool session that Josh arrived.

He sat down right next to me and he said, “Pete, you’re going to make a killing on this trip, huge bonus is coming your way, but I’ve got something better for you.”

To be clear, I’d never laid eyes on this guy in my life, and here is is telling me about my work and even calling me by name. I should’ve known then that it was something not normal. But I didn’t, and I just went along with him.

“Sure,” I said, “That makes total sense, except business has been lousy and I can’t even remember the last time I got a bonus.”

“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m in the miracle business and I know one is coming your way. But, again, I’ve got something better for you. Why don’t you finish your drink and follow me?”

Maybe it was the 3rd too many drinks I had already consumed, or the fact that he appeared to know more than he should, or maybe it was something else, but I did get up from that barstool and I followed him straight out of the airport.

And, honestly, I never looked back.

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But you don’t want to know about me. You want to know about Josh. You want to know if it’s all true, if it all really happened.

Well, I can tell you the truth, not the crazy stuff that went around on Twitter, or even the low-quality YouTube videos from so-called eye witness. 

I was there, for all of it.

Like the time he fed everyone in the park. Do you know that one?

See, we’d been in the park with him all day, Josh had quite a following at that point, he talked most of the day about all sorts of things that sounded nice but didn’t make a lot of sense. At least, it didn’t at the time. He was so good with crowds, it was like he knew exactly how to play them and how to lift them up and bring them down and keep them on the edge of their toes.

But we had been there all day, and when he finished talking he started walking throughout all the people and started curing some of the sick and comforting the downtrodden and no one wanted to leave. 

But they were getting hungry.

And then Josh said, “This is a nice size crowd today. You think we have about 5,000? Too bad we don’t have any food to give them. Pizza sounds nice.”

“Pizza?” I said, “Do you know how expensive it is to feed 5,000 people pizza?”

He ignored me and spotted a kid on the other side of the park walking home with a pizza in his arms and he ran after him. Josh came back a minute later with the pizza, and the kid, and said that the boy had agreed to let us borrow the pizza. I mean, who ever heard of borrowing a pizza? But then he told me to round everyone up and to see how far we could stretch it out. 

So I grabbed a few pieces and handed them to the closest person and when I went back to the box it was still full. And it was full every time I went back for more. Until everyone in the park had their fill and we even had leftovers.

By the end of the spectacle it was clear what had happened. At first, people just assumed the slices were being passed out from the middle of the park where a whole boatload of pizzas had been delivered. But the word got around that Josh had fed the entire park with just one box of pizza, and they started calling it the greatest miracle of all time and they said that Josh should be elected to the Senate, or even the White House with the kind of powers that he had.

That’s when things really started to change. 

Because up until then, Josh seemed content for his miracles to be a substitute for the message. But after the powerful pizza moment, he was convinced that any miracle would give people the wrong impression. He talked about his death a lot at the time and none of us really listened. We were too busy eating our pizza. And even when he talked about a New Order and the first being last and the last being first, it all sounded nice but it couldn’t quite compare with sick kids getting better, and people walking away from their wheelchairs.

But, like I said, things changed after the pizza.

He talked about his death all the time, and those riotous crowds started dwindling. They waited for a miracle and all they got was hot air. He started telling all these stories that didn’t make much sense, like the one about a man abandoned on the side of the road and only a homeless man stopped to help him. Or the one about the dad who sold the family business and gave the proceeds to his youngest son who blew it all in Vegas only to return home penniless and his dad threw him a giant party.

I couldn’t blame the crowds for leaving. I mean, here he was in one day fixing the hunger problem, filling the bellies of thousands. Why couldn’t he run for office and fix all sorts of other things?

But Josh just kept saying the same thing each time, how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously they would still die eventually. He’d talk about a new kind of food, a food that would really fill the world. In fact, he once said that unless we were all filled with him, we would stay dead forever. But if we fed on him, he would raise us from death for good.

But what you really want to know is where he is now. Why did he leave if there’s still so much work to be done?

Well, that’s honestly what I wondered at first too, until I remembered all the stuff he used to say. 

Josh’s final earthly act was just as bizarre and paradoxical as his bizarre and paradoxical life was. He had already been killed and raised from the dead. He had been with us for forty days talking to us about all the stuff we had already gone over. When one day he said he wanted to go for a hike. So we filled our bags with sandwiches and headed for the woods. We hiked and hiked until we came to a clearing.

He looked up into the sky and said, “It’s time for me to reign with my Father.”

And one of us said, “Wait, wait, wait. If you’re about to do something really cool, can we at least call the news station to get a camera out here? And if not that, can I at least put it on Facebook Live?”

And Josh said, “No. Listen to me. I know this doesn’t make sense to you. But hasn’t all of this been weird? I am leaving. But I’m not really leaving. It’s time for me to rule over the cosmos, but I’m sending you another soon. I want you to get it through your thick skulls one last time, the world depends on it: The New Order does not come because you or anyone else can do anything to make it happen. I am the New Order; It is me and it is in me. It’s in you. When I ascend I am taking the whole world with me.”

Then he looked up again and continued, “I know it won’t seem like it right now, but this is nothing new. I am simply making manifest what I’ve been doing all along. No meddling, divine or human, spiritual or material, moral or immoral can save the world. Your salvation is already here, in me. The only thing you have to do is trust me.”

And with that he started floating, subtly at first, just a few inches off the ground. “Listen,” he said, “We don’t have long, and you have work to do. But its not the work that you think. It’s not your job to fix anyone or save anyone. Hell, it’s not your job to fix or save yourselves. All you need to do is go and tell everyone what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. Tell them they are forgiven. And when they don’t believe you, because they won’t, tell them again. Tell them again and again and again until it seeps into the marrow of their very existence. Tell them I’ve gone and done for them what they never could for themselves. Tell them. And don’t let them forget.”

And then he disappeared. 

We were all stupefied and kept looking hoping against hope that maybe it was just a trick of the light until we realized that he was gone. But the strangest thing was, it didn’t really feel like he was gone. It felt like he was right there with us.

And that’s when two crazy bearded men came tumbling out of the woods and said, “What the hell are you all doing standing around like that? Didn’t you hear what he said? Go. You’ve got a job to do.

And I’ve been doing it ever since. Amen.

Gold Bond and The Gospel

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tripp Fuller about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 1.6-14, Psalm 68.1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4.12-14, 6.6-11, John 17.1-11). Tripp is the host of Home-brewed Christianity, and is a Religion/Science Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Our conversation covers a range of topics including homeschooling in quarantine, Process Theology, hide and seek, idiotic disciples, looking down and out, psalm problems, faithful suffering, tyrannical immediacy, thinking small, and the doneness of the Good News. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Gold Bond and The Gospel

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On Personal Pandemic Improvements

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but there has been no shortage of people claiming this is the perfect time to fashion ourselves into the the best versions we can muster. From learning how to bake sourdough bread, to losing those ten extra pounds we put on at Thanksgiving, to learning a new language – now is the moment to seize the day! 

And yet, as Christians, we know better than most that telling someone to change rarely, if ever, works. 

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One of my favorite theological writers, Robert Farrar Capon, puts it like this:

I do not seriously expect that you would never be angry just because I lectured you about your temper. We have far less power than we think to revolutionize our behavior. The real saints among us are not, as we commonly suppose, those who have conquered their vices, but those who have not allowed vice to blunt their critical appreciation of virtue. They may go on sinning, but they don’t stop confessing. Therefore, you do not need me to urge a modest reform upon you: all reforms, as you know perfectly well, turn out automatically to be more modest than anything else. What you need is a call to immodest repentance, so that when you sin, you will at least sin boldly, honoring the law with an honest breach rather than fiddling with it until it isn’t a law.” RFC, Party Spirit

Rather than becoming the best version of ourselves, now is the time to rest in the knowledge that God loves us as we are. Which, to be clear, is astounding! That’s the best news we can ever offer anyone because it sets us free from the expectations of the world and the expectations we place on ourselves. The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t so hard after all.

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Faith In The Time of COVID

The church has gone digital.

Frankly, it started a long time ago.

However, the recent wave of the COVID19 pandemic has forced churches across the world to adapt to the situation whether they wanted to or not.

When I first felt a call to ministry as a teenager in the early aughts, I told my pastor and he responded by telling me I would be preaching at the end of the month. He then gave me a few instructions (here’s the text, write 2,000 words, practice in front of a mirror, etc.) and the rest is history. One of the unanticipated benefits of being launched into ministry the way I was means that every sermon I’ve ever preached can be read online.

Literally through this blog.

As the years progressed I started making digital audio recordings of said sermons and now it’s not just a matter of reading the sermons online, but anyone anywhere can listen to them as well.

Therefore, to add the videocamera a few weeks ago to the typical Sunday morning experience wasn’t too much of a stretch.

It would seem, then, that going forward every sermon can be read, listened to, or watched online.

But, is it still church?

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A good friend of mine, Alan Combs, recently started a new podcast called “Shelter In Place.” The idea behind the podcast is to reach out to a variety of people to discover how they are finding comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. I love the premise of it all and was thrilled to be invited on for a recent episode.

In it Alan, his friend Joey, and I talked about the challenges of doing ministry in the midst of the pandemic from live-streaming on Sunday mornings, to staying connected with church folk, to what kind of music we’ve been listening to.

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the Shelter In Place podcast, you can do so here: Faith In The Time Of COVID