Faithful Consequences

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6.14-29). Our conversation covers a range of topics including family ties, Money Heist, liturgical dance, food, the heart of the psalter, embracing the unknown, grace in parenting, theological adoption, absent sermons, and the story within the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Faithful Consequences

The Insanity of the Gospel

Mark 3.20-35

And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 

This is a difficult passage.

We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.

So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.

Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”

Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.

“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!

And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.

This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.

And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.

Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.

Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.

Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”

No. They said he was out of his mind. 

But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.

Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life. 

That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.

Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.

And perhaps they had a point. 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”

That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster. 

Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”

That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”

Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…

Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.

No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there! 

Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.

You can only win by losing.

You can only receive by giving.

You can only live by dying.

Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?

Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.

And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!

Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”

And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?

His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.

The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?

But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset. 

It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you. 

But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.

If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.

The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be. 

It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.

It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.

Could there be any better news than that?

But wait, there’s more!

Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds. 

But what about for God?

God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.

Including us!

The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.

Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.

And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.

Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!

Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.

Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail. 

That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes. 

So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen. 

Families Are Complicated

Matthew 1.1-17

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Merry Christmas!

Here we are on the other side of the manger, the presents have been opened, the zooms with families have taken place, and we find ourselves back in worship waiting on a Word from the Lord.

There’s something about this season that tends to bring out the very best, and the very worst, in families whether or not we are in a pandemic. 

In some homes, Christmastide is the blessed opportunity to be together, to rejoice in the past, present, and future of the people we are connected to. And, in other homes, Christmastide is when everyone waits anxiously for the inevitability of all the old arguments bubbling to the surface.

I can remember one particular Christmas Eve when, after the service ended, an extended family made their way up to the altar to take that perfect holiday photo with two adult brothers flanking either end of the framing with their respective families.

They hadn’t talked in 10 years but they never failed to have their families together for a picture.

Families are complicated.

And perhaps no family was and is more complicated than Jesus’.

The Gospel according to John begins with a connection to the cosmos – in the beginning was the Word. 

The Gospel according to Mark doesn’t even have an introduction and just hits the ground running with J the B out in the wilderness. 

The Gospel according to Luke gives us some authorial remarks regarding the necessity for the transmission of the Good News.

The Gospel according to Matthew gets down to earth and puts the family of Jesus in the particular context and the history of Israel. And the closer you get down to earth, the earthier it all becomes.

So, for the next 10 or so minutes, I’m going to try and bring us through the genealogy of the baby born King we were worshipping on Christmas Eve. And, hopefully, you will see that my claim of Jesus’ sordid family history is not in vain.

We begin with Abraham. We start with good ol’ Abe because everything that follows hangs on him and his faith. He is the one in whom and with whom God makes the covenant, in him the promise of blessed generations begins. Finally, near the end of his days when he was good and old, Abraham becomes the father of Isaac.

And yet, the faith of Abraham, a staple in both the Old and New Testaments, meant that, while Isaac was still a boy he nearly had his life ended by his faithful father. Nevertheless, he survived to father Jacob, a devious trickster of a kid who solidified his position in salvation history by lying and swindling his aging father.

Incidentally, Jacob was himself duped as well. He wound up sleeping with the wrong bride by mistake, and became the father of Judah.

And, because families are complicated, Judah accidentally slept with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, who pulled one over on him by dressing up as a harlot (more on them in a moment). When Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law got knocked up while a lady of the night he order her burned at the stake. He only relented when, of course, he discovered that he, himself, fathered the child in her, Perez.

And that’s just the first few generations.

Next follows a list of people we know nothing about until we get to Boaz.

Scripture tells us that Boaz was a good and honorable man and his conjugal connections with Ruth continue the family line. Notably, Ruth shows up at Boaz’s house late one night, prior to marriage, and uncovers his feet. 

If you know what the Bible means.

And this kind of behavior should not have been surprising to Boaz because his mother was Rahab, the harlot who had the sweetest little house on the edge of Jericho, who hid the agents of Joshua, and who was brought into the people Israel after the city of massacred.

Anyway, Ruth and her Bo-az (get it?) made life in Bethlehem, the little town of bread, and part of their story (at least scripturally) often shows up as a preferred text in wedding services. You know, the whole “where you go I will go, your people will be my people” bit.

I wonder how many couples who hear those words at the altar know the other parts of the story…

But back to the family – what seems to be important for Matthew’s recollection of the genealogy is that Ruth, a pagan foreigner, felt compelled to do whatever it took to carry on the family line, a line that led to David and eventually to Jesus.

Ruth gave birth to Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

If you couldn’t tell, the first section of the genealogy focuses heavily on reproduction and the ways in which reproduction gets messy.

The next section centers around violence.

King Dave, after all the battles and all the victories, chanced upon a naked bathing woman during some afternoon peeping. He used the power at his disposal to arrange her husband’s murder, raped her, and became the father of Solomon, the one with all the wisdom.

The whole story of David is full to the brim with intrigue and murder.

A lot of murder.

In many ways, David was simply a very successful bandit who, along with the Holy Spirit, brought together a bunch of tribes and started a real kingdom.

However, Solomon’s son Rehoboam lost almost all of David’s gain through insatiable greed. He, according to the strange new world of the Bible, encouraged pagan cults and even sacred male prostitutes.

The next few names int he genealogical record aren’t much to speak of, though at least two of them had some idea about what it meant to be covenanted with the great IAM. 

Nevertheless, from Jehosophat through Joram and Ahaziah, its quite the sordid affair. Should you find some extra time on your hands, you can skim through the canon and learn about murdered sons, blood thirsty kings, assassins, and so on.

Perhaps the first Sunday after Christmas isn’t the best opportunity to take a peak behind the curtain of God’s Holy Word, but it’s all there. All the way up to, and through, the exile.

After the period of being strangers in a strange land, of wrestling between planting roots and getting plucked up, things only get marginally better for the holiest of families. But only because most of the names in Matthew’s genealogy aren’t mentioned anywhere else in scripture.

And finally, FINALLY, we make our way all the way down until we encounter the little town of Bethlehem with Joseph who Matthews describes as a just man (which must be saying something in comparison with his ancestors). And who does Joseph bring to the family village? His pregnant virgin fiancé Mary.

That’s Jesus’ family tree, in all its glory.

What should we make of it?

Well, not to put too fine a point on things, but Jesus obviously did not belong to the nice clean world of all the worst Hallmark Christmas movies, he did not belong to the reasonable, or honest, or sincere world of decency that we all too often claim for ourselves today.

Jesus belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, scoundrels, adulterers, and liars.

Jesus belonged to people like us, and he came for people like us.

No wonder God had to send his Son into the world. Jesus is the only hope we’ve got. Amen.

The Bewildering Word

Romans 5.8

But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.

I, along with a few other pastors, have been leading a weekly online Bible study throughout the Pandemic. Each Wednesday afternoon we’ve gone through a particular set of verses and made the whole thing available to our respective congregations while we cannot gather together in-person.

I’ve loved every minute of it.

Talking about scripture with others has always been something I’ve enjoyed (hence being the whole pastor thing) but getting to talk about scripture with other pastors is a strangely rare occurrence. For, more often than not, clergy are tasked with talking about scripture to their church communities rather than with those who similarly feel called to do so.

Every week I’ve learned something from the Bible that I didn’t know before. This has been partly due to the fact that the pastors participating represent different denominations and therefore theological trainings and experiences. And I know that I am a better pastor for it.

Yesterday, we were talking about Matthew 9-10 and Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to go out to proclaim the Good News. And, in the midst of our conversation, we got a little bogged down in our reflections on this particular verse: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

We, the pastors, took turns reflecting theologically about the time and space aspect of the proclamation, the event that is Jesus Christ, and how we might come to grips with the transformation wrought in the person we call the Lord.

And, here’s what I offered: “Being a Christian is often nothing more than hearing God say, ‘I will not abandon you,’ over and over again until you realize it’s true.”

The kingdom of heaven who is the person of Jesus Christ has come near to dwell among us, regardless and in spite of our earnings and deservings. While we were sinners Christ died for us – not before nor after. Right smack dab in the middle of our biggest mistake, Jesus said, “Okay, I’m willing to die for that.”

That’s a really bewildering word. Sometimes we only need to hear it once and it changes everything forever. But for others, it takes a lifetime of hearing it Sunday after Sunday before we realize its true.

I have friends who, after being married for a little while, decided to adopt a child. They went through all the proper channels and eventually traveled to Guatemala where they met G who was 15 months old. They returned home with him and their lives were properly upended with all the responsibilities that come with parenting. 

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, my friends received a phone call from the lawyer who helped them find their son. The lawyer shared that there was a family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named A, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer wanted to know if my friend were interested in adopting another son.

However, the lawyer explained, this 5 year old was allegedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to be rid of him after all, and he didn’t speak any English.

My friends said yes.

Those two boys are now about to enter high school and make plans for life after high school, respectively. They are some of the most incredible young men I’ve ever had the privilege to call friends, and my life is better for them being in it.

But I know it wasn’t easy for my friends, their parents.

In the beginning, right after A arrived, they had to sleep with him in his bed for months, all in the hopes that he would understand that they wouldn’t abandon him. Night after night they would whisper in his ear “We’re not leaving,” and “We love you,” and “This is your home.” They believed in what they were do so that we would one day realize that no matter what he did, no matter har far he fell, there was nothing he could ever do that would separate their love for him. 

It took a very long time, but for a five year old Guatemalan boy who had been passed from family to family, it was the only way for him to understand what their love, what love at all, looked like.

And that’s exactly what God’s love looks like for us.

It’s a reckless and confounding divine desire to remain steadfast even when we won’t. 

It’s the forgiveness offered before an action is committed. 

It is what we in the church call the Gospel.

Just like my friends cradling their son in their arms night after night, God will never let us go. And that is Good News.

To My Youngest Sister On Her Second Wedding Anniversary

1 Corinthians 12.12-13

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

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Two years ago I stood before you, Mike, and a whole bunch of family members and I brought you two together in, what we call in the church, holy marriage. 

What makes it holy has nothing to do with those getting married and everything to do with the Lord who makes your marriage intelligible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can very distinctly remember the phone call I received way back when Mike asked for your hand. I can also remember that as soon as we hung up, I prayed and gave thanks to God.

I did the same thing the day you got married.

I gave thanks to God because your marriage to one another makes no sense outside of the God who delights in our coming together to become something new.

In the church we call that grace.

Today I give thanks again not because you’ve rejoiced with your partner for the last two years, or that we had such an awesome time at your wedding; I give thanks to God because your marriage is a sign, and a reminder, of the Spirit’s presence with us.

It forces people to confront the truth that your joining together points toward the unity in community that is the Trinity.

On the day of your wedding, I did my best (read: failed) to hold back tears when I watched you walk down the aisle. I grabbed your hands and placed them on Mike’s and asked you to make promises with each other about the future, a future that you could not possibly predict. I even made a joke (Jason Micheli did as well) that as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, “we always marry the wrong person.” We marry the wrong person because none of us knows what we’re doing when we get married. That we stay married to strangers who we never fully understand is yet another reminder of God’s grace. 

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On the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians bickered among one another about whatever it meant to follow Jesus. They refused to share communion with each other, they argued about who was really part of the new covenant, and they very quickly reverted back to the ways of life prior to Jesus interrupting their lives. 

All which prompted Paul’s letter to the church regarding the “body with many members” discourse. 

Today, preachers like me, use 1 Corinthians 12 to talk about how the people of a church just need to get along. After all, we all have different gifts we bring to the table.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve thought those same words being meant for those who are married. 

Two years ago, I told you and Mike that you were becoming one flesh, I talked about how the body of Christ would be made visible through your marriage to one another, and I even hinted at the fact that the promise you made was a reminder of God’s promise to remain faithful to us.

No matter what.

God has been with both of you in every moment of your marriage and was there long before you even met each other. God, in God’s weird way, brought you two together to remind the rest of us what grace, love, and mercy really look like. Because if a marriage isn’t filled to the brim with love, grace, and mercy, it will never work.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenant of your marriage is a reminder of the power and the necessity of the church. The church (for all her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the promise you made to each other. The church, itself, is a covenant and promise from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as the bridegroom. We, who call ourselves Christians, make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and brought to fruition in the empty tomb.

In your marriage you two have experienced what Christians experience every Sunday in worship: through hands clasped in prayer, the breaking of bread, the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the preaching of a sermon. 

Your marriage is a reminder of God’s marriage with us. And for that I give thanks.

Sincerely.

Your Big Brother

Exegete This!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including story time with Bishop Willimon, throwing on the wheel, difficult verses, being known, predestination, Philemon, reading outside the text, hating the family, kingdom catching, and uncomfortable fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exegete This!

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The Wrong Scripture – A Baptism Homily

Romans 12.9-13

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

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Dear Jacoby,

You’re not going to remember today. 

If he had it his way, and by he I mean your uncle, and by uncle I mean someone who wishes he was your uncle, and by all of that I mean Jason… If he had it his way, I wouldn’t baptize you.

It’s not because you don’t deserve it, or that you’re not the paragon of cherubic cuteness.

It’s because he believes baptizing babies is an inherently problematic theological adventure.

And, though it deeply pains me to admit it, he’s got a point.

Jacoby, in time you will come to know the stories of Jesus – in fact your parents have already started telling you about the man to whom they committed their lives. And as you come to know Jesus more and more you will discover that baptism in the bible, whatever it may be, never happens to children. 

It’s reserved for adults.

The theological rationale is that only adults have the wherewithal, the ability, to comprehend the immensity of what is about to be done to and for you. Only adults have the maturity and the agency to commit their lives to the death made manifest in the water, and the new life that comes from emerging out of it.

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And that’s our problem little Jacoby you’re too young and you’re not going to remember any of this – which is why I’m writing you this letter. The hope is that when you look back at this decision that was made for you, you can at least to some degree appreciate how strange it all was, that your parents and the rest of your family agreed to make a covenant that you cannot.

I mean, we’re pretty good people – you’ve got an aunt who can dance like there’s no tomorrow while also writing in iambic pentameter. You have an uncle who can literally fix anything, literally. You have another aunt who can listen to 5 podcasts in a row while throwing on the wheel without missing a beat. You’ve got an uncle with such good taste in music that other people are often green with envy. You have an aunt who is so dedicated to the needs of others than she often forgets to think of herself (she’s also gorgeous). You have an aunt and uncle who have more scholarly education than most of the rest of the world. And you have an uncle who can marry, bury, and baptize anyone. 

But the really funny thing about putting all of the responsibility on the adults in the room is that we have no greater role in any of this than you do. Whether we have the proper frame of mind or not, your baptism is not about us. 

And that’s why it doesn’t matter what Jason thinks – baptism isn’t really about adults or babies. Not even you Jacoby.

It’s about God.

Jacoby, one day, if we actually live up to the covenant we are about to make, you will see the similarities between baptism and marriage. In both, individuals make promises they cannot possibly understand in the hopes that God will make something of their nothing. And in both circumstances, I often encourage those involved with the service to choose the scripture passage that, to them, best suits the moment.

When I married your aunt and uncle they, strangely, thought it best to proclaim the story of David’s anointing when being joined together. I have to admit that I scratched my head in the days leading up to their backyard wedding as I struggled to make some theological sense out of kingship in the midst of marriage.

The stories we gravitate to in scripture tend to define us. I could make the case that your uncle David wanted to hear about the story of the biblical David because he likes to think of himself as a king, or at least a king when it comes to chess.

But, of course, there’s also more to it than that. Like the biblical king with whom he shares a name, your uncle has lived a life whereby looking at the content of one’s heart, rather than their outward appearance, has defined much of his personality in all of the best ways possible.

Similarly, your parents chose the passage about the threefold cord not being easily broken as their wedding passage. And, to be honest Jacoby, that was so them.

They humbly know and recognize that their marriage will require more than just themselves, and they pray regularly for God to be the third part of their cord that binds them together through better and worse. Moreover, as you grow older and older you will come to find that your parents love to make friends of strangers, particularly when it comes to inviting others to the tables. And thus the threefold cord grows and grows.

Which makes what I’m about to say all the stranger: your parents picked the wrong passage for your baptism. 

And, to be clear, this is even more bizarre when you consider the fact that your parents are much better Christians than I am, and I am paid to be a professional one. 

The passage is okay, in the church we call Paul’s list in Romans 12 the marks of being a true Christian. But here’s the strange, dark, and even terrifying truth of reading this passage, a scripture all about being the best you, is that you will never do it.

You might try. Hell, I hope you do. And maybe you’ll even be good at some of it for awhile, but ultimately laying out a list like this one, on the day we kill you and resurrect you to new life here and now, is like telling you to climb a mountain that has no peak.

Let your love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to the good. 

Jacoby, your grandmothers are salt of the earth Christians. They earnestly pray for others, they show up when few others do, and they understand the virtues of active listening. But even they fall short of the expectations of Paul’s list. But Jacoby, for as faithful and flawed as your grandmothers are, they know that reading this list immediately before your baptism, like they are commandments from the Lord, is to confuse what we in the church call the law and the gospel. 

Or, to put it another way, reading this list implies, to some degree, that you are only worthy of the water to which I will pour on you if, IF, you do these things.

But the truth I hope you come to discover in your parents, your family, and your church, is that there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

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In no way shape or form is the love of God almighty continent on our willingness, or our ability, to actively live a life according Paul’s list. So, Jacoby, you can hang these words above your door frame, you can write them on your heart, but don’t you ever believe that God’s love for you is dependent on your love for God.

Jacoby, your name is a cooler version of one of the most important people in all of scripture: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Jacob, the heel-grabber who swindled the birthright away from his older brother Esau. Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder that stretched into the heavens. Jacob, who married the wrong sister. 

But Jacob’s name eventually changed. He wrestled with the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and when they came to a stalemate, Jacob was renamed Israel. 

Israel means, “You have striven against God and humans and prevailed.”

You, Jacoby, share a name with a man whose life was turned upside by God and a man who walked with a limp for the rest of his life after his name was changed.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that you would be so blessed as the one from whom you received your name.

Because Jacob, the biblical Jacob, stands as a shining example of what it means to be baptized by the Lord – whatever your life was, whatever it could have been, will be destroyed forever; in the water you will find the same Lord that changed Jacob into Israel, the same Lord that will grab hold of you throughout your life, the same Lord who will refuse to let go whether you do or not.

What we do in your baptism has almost nothing to do with any of us – but it has everything to do with the God who chose to come as close to us as a baby boy, a baby named Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Which brings me back to the list from Romans. I would love to spend even more time lambasting your parents for picking the wrong passage, there is some wisdom in choosing it for today. 

But the wisdom comes in the recognition that the list, though meant for us, is actually about Jesus.

Jesus’ love was genuine as he marched to the margins of life bringing hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and voice to the voiceless.

Jesus hated all things evil particularly when it came to the powers and principalities that preyed on the weak.

Jesus held fast to the good in the moments of fear and frustration, like kneeling in the garden, and mounting the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus’ loved those around him with mutual affection, particularly when he removed his outer robe and used it to wash the feet of his disciples.

Jesus outdid everyone in his life by showing honor, though he did so in recognition that the least of these are the ones who will be first in the kingdom.

Jesus did not lag in zeal, and was remarkably ardent in spirit, as he served the Lord every day of his earthly life.

Jesus rejoiced in hope, hope for a day when weeping, and crying, and death would be no more. 

Jesus was patient in his suffering, even in the midst of death.

Jesus persevered in prayer, regularly retreating from the crowds to places of solitude to commune with the Lord.

Jesus contributed to the needs of the saints, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, befriended the lonely.

Jesus extended hospitality to strangers, particularly those forced to the edges of society and those who were far too often forgotten.

Jacoby, this list was meant for us, but it’s ultimately about Jesus. Which actually makes it the perfect passage for the day of your baptism, because you have done nothing to deserve it – and you never will.

That’s why we call it grace.

Though, lest you read this as a middle schooler and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that doing the things on Paul’s list don’t matter. Instead, it’s that even if you lived according to it and were considered a saint by all your friends, your life would still pale in comparison to the work of God made manifest in Jesus Christ made available to you by water and the Word.

We will make a covenant to love you, and pray for you, and raise you in the faith that was first handed down to us. But following Jesus is not simply about people like me telling someone like you that God calls you to do nice things and live a life with genuine love.

The world is a mixed up, topsy turvy, broken place filled with messed up, upside-down, sinners like you and me.

And, you will absolutely fail to follow the commands of Romans 12.

You only need to think about the story of the biblical Jacob, the one whose life reads like a roller coaster, to know that in our heart of hearts we often make the wrong choice, we hurt the people we love, and we think we deserve more than we receive.

But your baptism, Jacoby, is something you do not deserve. You have not, and you cannot, earn it.

It is offered to you in spite of you.

It’s grace.

My beloved nephew, you are about to be baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, nor will you ever be able to. In the water offered to you God will incorporate you in to a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

I hope you come to discover, with each passing day, that God exists neither next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

God is great! God is the one who created the heavens and the earth, who entered into covenant with his servant Abraham, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, who called Moses from the burning bush, who delivered the people Israel from captivity in Egypt, who sustained the nation through the judges and the prophets, who anointed kings to lead, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who saved the world through a cross, who was resurrected three days later.

In baptism, God’s story becomes your story.

So welcome dear Jacoby, welcome to the story that started long before you arrived. Welcome to the life where in spite of our best intentions, and even our worst, God will refuse to let us go. Welcome to baptism made possible by Jesus. Amen. 

To My Youngest Sister On The Occasion Of Her Engagement

Jeremiah 31.31-33

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

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I answered the phone yesterday afternoon to the delightful news of your engagement. You shared the where, and the how, and the when. I listened with my imagination and tried to picture the scene as it all unfolded. I contemplated the beginning of your relationship and all the mountains and valleys that led to the proposal.

And as soon as you hung up to call the next person on the list, I gave thanks to God.

I gave thanks to God not because you’ve found your partner, or that you were asked in accordance with your romantic desires; I gave thanks to God because your engagement is a sign (and reminder) of God’s covenant with all of us.

When the day of your wedding arrives, I will stand with the two of you by the altar, and I will ask you to make promises (read: covenants) with each other about the future. A future that you cannot possibly imagine. And I will save more theological reflections for that particular moment, but until that holy time, I will share this – there is a difference between the promise that is now present on your finger, and the promise that marks our hearts.

For centuries the people of God abandoned the ways of God. Rather than rejoicing in all the good gifts they received, they (just like us) wanted more. They wanted more power, more wealth, more esteem at the expense of their faithfulness, holiness, and convictions. They worshiped other gods, they rejected the covenant, they assumed that they could make it through this life all on their own.

And for that reason God established a new covenant.

It was a new covenant not because the first was flawed, but because the partner of the covenant was flawed. The covenant became a list of dos and don’ts such that they worshiped the Law rather than the One who gave the Law. Moreover, they began to see one another not as fellow brothers and sisters set apart by God, but as objects to be manipulated for individual gain.

In the fullness of time God saw fit to establish a new covenant through water and Spirit, the covenant of baptism, through which we are incorporated in Christ’s church. It is a sign of a promise written on our hearts that God will be our God.

It is not a ring on a finger.

That is a different sort of promise. That promise (of which you sent a picture to me minutes after the proposal) is a promise made between two of God’s people in anticipation of God’s promise being made manifest.

That’s not to say that God’s wasn’t there on the mountaintop when you shouted “yes!” with gleeful joy. God certainly was; just as God has been with the two of you in every moment of your relationship. But there is a new covenant coming, one made between the two of you in the sight of God, and in the sight of the community that will promise to hold you accountable to the covenant you are making.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenantal moment on the mountain is a reminder of the power and necessity of the church. The church (for all of her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the kind of promises that you and your beloved have made, and will continue to make, with one another. The church itself is a covenant from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as bridegroom. We make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and exemplified in the empty tomb.

You two are now on a path that Christians experience every Sunday in worship, through every clasped connection of hands in prayer, in the breaking of bread, in the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the occasional sermon.

Your engagement is a reminder of God’s engagement (covenant) with us. And for that I give thanks to God.

 

Sincerely,

Your Big Brother

Sweeter Than Honey

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Dr. Emily Hunter McGowin about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Emily is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She has a book on evangelical family practices titled “Quivering Families” coming out in May. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the privatization of the Christian family, the most misunderstood commandment, tribalism in the decalogue, the perfection of the law, biscuits with honey, God’s foolishness, and the lens of the resurrection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sweeter Than Honey

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Devotional – Deuteronomy 8.10

Devotional:

Deuteronomy 8.10

You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

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When I was in college I lived in a house with a handful of other young men, though I was the only one who went to church. We had all, at some point, been involved with a church, but my roommates no longer felt the need to attend. However, as I was the one who usually made dinner for all of us, I insisted that we pray together before feasting together.

For the first few months of living together they begrudgingly participated and politely bowed their heads as I thanked God for all of our blessings. After time they started holding hands with one another while I prayed and even asked for me to included particular things in my prayers. And on one particular night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they were the ones who reminded me to pray on behalf of the table before we ate.

For years it was expected in many a Christian home that there would at least be a prayer before the common meal of dinner. Today, however, Thanksgiving has become one of the last refuges of prayer at a meal for many who follow Jesus.

We should pray before every meal recognizing that, as we read in Deuteronomy, the Lord has provided so much for us. But prayer is a habit that has to be cultivated; it is not something we can just institute overnight. However, we all have to start somewhere.

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There is a wonderful resource for developing a life of prayer titled Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals. And in it you can find the following prayer for before or after a meal:

“Lord God, Creator of all, in your wisdom, you have bound us together so that we must depend on others for the food we eat, the resources we use, the gifts of your creation that bring life, health, and joy. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the hands that sew our clothes so that we do not have to go naked; sacred be the hands that build our homes so that we do not have to be cold; blessed be the hands that work the land so that we do not have to go hungry. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the feet of all who labor so that we might have rest; sacred be the feet of all who run swiftly to stand with the oppressed; blessed be the feet of all whose bodies are too broken or weary to stand. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the sound of children laughing to take away our sorrow; sacred be the sound of water falling to take away our thirst; blessed be the sound of your people singing to heal our troubled hearts. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the bodies of those who know hunger; sacred be the bodies of those who are broken; blessed be the bodies of those who suffer. In your mercy and grace, soften our callous hearts and fill us with gratitude for all the gifts you have given us. In your love, break down the walls that separate us and guide us along your path of peace, that we might humbly worship you in Spirit and in truth. Amen.”

What would it look like to use this prayer before our Thanksgiving tables on Thursday? Or, perhaps more importantly, what would it look like to use this prayer every time we gather at the table to eat?