We Didn’t Start The Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Our conversation covers a range of topics including breaking yokes, getting political in church, fire on the altar, Bojack Horseman and Fleabag, singing our faith, making connections, David Bentley Hart, redemptive justice, and loneliness in a connected world. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Didn’t Start The Fire

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Welcoming The Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 5.1-7, Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56). Ken serves as the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Fleming Rutledge, preaching for preachers, the fruit of the vine, the blame game, particular preparation, the case for the collar, restoration, the faith hall of fame, the divine “yet”, and quoting Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Welcoming The Fire

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You’ve Got To Set Yourself On Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 6.1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, Luke 5.1-11). Our conversation covers a range of topics including fishing with Jesus, deserted island scriptures, prophetic imagination, transformation by fire, the call to confusion, theological reset buttons, the intimacy of creation, resurrection lenses, spiritual hangovers, and leaving everything behind. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: You’ve Got To Set Yourself On Fire

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Asking The Right Quanswers

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 2.15-17, 21-22). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lighting stuff on fire, unpacking redemption, being comfortable with sin, Maggie Smith as the voice of God, shouting “glory!” in church, the gray area of sentimentality, baby baptism, and youth group initiations. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Asking The Right Quanswers

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Flashing Forth Flames of Fire

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Imagine, if you can, that I was a middle student and I came to your office one day and asked you to explain the Trinity. What would you say?

I was sitting at a table surrounded by pastors and lay people from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and they were evaluating whether or not I had been effective in my first three years of ministry. This was one of the last requirements to be fully ordained, and get to wear a stole like this one.

So I was sitting there at the table having already fielded an hour’s worth of theological questions when I was asked to explain the nature of the Trinity to a hypothetical middle schooler.

What would you say?

The three most popular analogies for the Trinity are as follows:

The Trinity is like an egg. At one moment it is three distinct things – a shell, a yolk, and an egg white. Without all three it ceases to be an egg. However this fails to justice to the Trinity because it cannot be divided into parts, but the egg can.

Another analogy is that the Trinity is like water. Water, depending on external temperature, can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. And regardless of what state it is in, the chemical composition remains the same. However, this too fails to do justice to the Trinity because water can change into gas, or vice versa, but the Father does not become the Son or the Spirit.

Finally, there’s the analogy of the shamrock. St. Patrick was once said to have picked up a shamrock and say, just as there are three leaves, but there is one plant – so it is with the Trinity. However, this falls apart with the fact that the shamrocks have different parts and that is not true for the Trinity.

Pretend I’m a middle schooler and I wanted to know about the Trinity. What would you say?

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Today is Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday immediately following Pentecost and it is a time for us to confront our three-in-one God. It continues us throughout the period we call Ordinary Time until Advent. Many churches use this day as a teaching moment to help illuminate church doctrine about what it means to be Trinitarian. They might break out some water, or eggs, or shamrocks and do what they can to help all in attendance to understand what we believe just a little bit better.

            But here’s the thing – For as much as our God is a present and revealing God, our God is also incomprehensibly and uncontainably complex.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings! The voice of the Lord thunders, it breaks the cedars, the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord flashes forth like flames of fire!

The psalmist conveys to us images of the divine that have far more to do with destruction and devastation than with eggs, water, and shamrocks. Here we discover a God who causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare, such that all the people in God’s temple say, “Glory!”

Most of us have come of age in a world where the God of scripture has been conveyed to us through analogy after analogy, where professional Christians like me have endeavored to bring people like you closer to the divine, when the truth of the matter is that we cannot describe God, and God is the One who encounters us.

Our God cannot be contained by metaphors and analogies for middle school students – our God is as overwhelming as a windstorm leaving a forest bare, as frightening as a voice that can shake the wilderness, and as bewildering as flames of fire flashing forth.

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The church, the Bible, the Trinity, they are all confusing, and we can blame it on God. God reveals God’s self in ways we cannot imagine or rationalize, and choose to be God for us as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that it is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe.

And so, with all this confounding confusion, what can we say about our God?

Perhaps, we can say that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. We can say this because God chose to reveal God’s self to us in the person and incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, like God, is anything but simple.

In Jesus, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar. God came close to us, too close for comfort for many. Jesus is God in action. Jesus is God refusing to remain an abstract idea removed to a far off place. Jesus is God breaking forth from the shackles of God’s own divinity.

But, lest we fall into a day-dream version of God in Jesus through the lens of sentimentality… God is still the God of the psalm flashing forth flames of fire.

I once heard that God is at least as nice as Jesus, but the same holds true that Jesus is at least as frightening as God.

            And then we’re left with another question: Who is God’s peace for?

After describing the destructive power of the Lord, the psalm ends with a call for God to give strength to God’s people and for them to be blessed with peace. What about those who are not part of God’s people? What does this peace actually look like? Does God take sides?

The answers to those questions are as confusing an as ambiguous as the Trinity itself.

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The Lord blesses the sons and daughters of Abraham but they live in a time of famine.

            They are rescued by Joseph only to become slave in Egypt.

            Led by Moses they escape bondage to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

            Joshua delivers them to the Promised Land but they are never really at peace.

            There are wars after wars and the so-called “chosen people” lose just as often as they win. They are taken into exile, or forced to wait for loved ones to return home. And when they are reconciled, if ever, peace is the last thing on their minds.

We can read these stories over and over again in the Old Testament, we can encounter those elected and rejected by God, but we don’t have to look far to know that it is true – we war among ourselves all the time; father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, sister against sister. And then we still ask, “Are we going to encounter the God of earthquakes, flames of fire, and whirling winds – Is God on our side?” Or, perhaps better put, “When will the Lord finally bless us with peace?”

Psalm 29, the doctrine of the Trinity, they both raise more questions than they provide answers. People like you and me have been struggling with these words and ideas for centuries, we’ve been tugged between the tension and ambiguity of God’s nature in the world and in our very lives.

We worship a God who blesses, but we live in a world where bad things happen to good people nonetheless. There is no easy and satisfying answer to the question of whether or not God takes sides, just as there is no easy and simple analogy for the Trinity.

We may never be able to avoid the confusing nature of faith completely. So much of what we do is based on a premise of mystery – we just happen to live in a world hell-bent on having an answer for everything.

If all this talk of trinitarianism and God’s frightening power seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. There are plenty of churches and communities that make this easier on the brain with simple analogies and ignorant assumptions. But there is no way for us to do justice to the marvelous complexity, the community in unity of the divine, without believing in the three-in-one God. We cannot worship God in faith without struggling and wrestling with the question of God’s preferences.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with his knowledge of God. He read all the right books and went to the right school, and even became a priest in the Church of England without believing in the faith he preached. He struggled and struggled to the point that when he asked one of his mentors what to do about leading a church without faith his mentor said, “preach until you get it.”

And it was 280 years ago this week that John Wesley wrote something rather remarkable in his diary: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God work in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had spent most of his life looking for God, when in the end God was the one who found him and warmed his heart. That moment changed everything, that society meeting on Aldersgate is largely responsible for the existence of the United Methodist Church today.

God comes to us, all of us, at any time and at any place, as Father-Son-Spirit. For some God flashes forth like flames of fire, and for others God’s flame is found in the warmth of our hearts. God finds us and, contrary to what we might want, God doesn’t answer all of our questions. Yet when God encounters we discover an assurance that this God is with us.

When the far-off One who has been brought near is us, when the wall that has been destroyed is the wall we build in a vain attempt to keep God out of our lives and off our backs, that’s when we start to know the Trinity.

Faith, however, will always remain a mystery. We will find ourselves confused by the God who finds us. Because, in the end, it may simply be too frightening to think about God’s peace, whatever that is. It might be too overwhelming to think that God is not on our side, or worse: God might be on their side.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as we leave scratching our heads, we do so with the hope that God will bless us with true peace – not as we know peace or wish to know peace; a peace that is always defined on our terms. No, this Trinity Sunday, we pray for the peace, the perfect peace, that is known and shared within the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.

            And, we may be so bold so pray, that God might warm our hearts in the process. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 118.22

Devotional:

Psalm 118.22

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 

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We were in the middle of the woods during a Boy Scout camping trip. Our leaders were known for coming up with activities that would help us to grow our wilderness skills, but this particular challenge was driving me crazy. Scattered throughout the clearing were areas with dry wood, tinder, and two stakes connected by a string holding up a water balloon. The challenge was to create a fire under the dangling water balloon using the natural elements until the balloon would pop and put out the fire.

The leaders separated us into groups of four and sent us to our different areas. I don’t remember everyone from my group but there was one boy who was known more for his love of books than his love of the great outdoors. Without intending to I basically ignored his presence while trying to organize the other two boys to begin working on our fire. We collected the tinder in a pile and tried rubbing sticks together. We went searching for some rocks that would hopefully create a spark when we slammed them together. Throughout the wooded area audible frustrations could be heard from each group as they struggled in vain to pop their balloon.

We must have worked for thirty minutes before I noticed the book-boy offering me a piece of advice. He was remarkably shy and I could barely make our what he was trying to say, though I could tell that he was serious. He quickly took off one of his hiking boots, removed a shoe-lace, curved a long stick, and created a make-shift bow. He then demonstrated that if we wrapped another stick around the string, we could move the bow like a saw and it would spin the stick for us with an incredible amount of friction. We quickly went to work and within 10 minutes we were the only group with a fire at all, and a few moments later the balloon popped and put out the fire that we had struggled to ignite. After congratulating ourselves I made a point to thank the boy for his idea and asked where it came from. He said, “I read about it in the Wilderness book that we were all supposed to read before this weekend.”

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The palmist writes about a stone that builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone. Those who are familiar with the New Testament will quickly identify Jesus as someone rejected by the elders who then became the foundation for the church. Yet, this is not something that can be applied to Jesus alone. I quickly rejected the help from a boy in the woods because I made a ridiculous assumption about his inability to help. In him I saw little value worth assessing. However, without his help we would probably still be in the woods trying to pop our balloon. God can, and does, use some of the least likely people to change the world. Everyone has value and worth, we need only a new perspective to realize it.

In the remaining days of Lent let us open our eyes to value in people around us. Instead of making quick and unjustified assumptions, let us take a moment to reflect and remember that those who we reject are often the ones who are here to save us.

How Did You Two Meet? – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.1-13

Acts 2.1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pntus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

I had spent an entire week with countless young Christians from all over the world at a monastery in Burgundy, France. For most weeks during the summer, Taize attracts upwards of 5,000 young Christians dedicated to exploring their faith through prayer, service, and singing. Waking up in a tent every morning, I would trudge across the dew filled grass passing neon tents filled with 20-somethings snoring away as the sun came up over the horizon. Each little campsite held clues as to the nationality of the residents: the occasional German flag, a water bottle covered in French writing, an abandoned tee-shirt with a hispanic wrestler flexing on the front, I even saw a cricket bat one morning. As the crowds made their way to the sanctuary, it was impossible to eavesdrop or understand what anyone was talking about because no one was speaking English.

Just past the interior door to the incredibly large sanctuary, there were buckets filled with hymnals organized by language. On our first morning I was surprised to discover that there were more “English” hymnals left in the buckets than any others, because Americans were part of the minority of the gathered body.

Taize Altar

Taize Altar

We sat on the floor surrounded by other young people who were still half asleep fumbling through our hymnals before the service began. Suddenly, up at the front of the massive building, a simply lit sign displayed three numbers “312” and as if we were being controlled by a single operator we all flipped our pages to the corresponding hymn. Without any musical accompaniment, without any choral direction, the hymn began. I, of course, sang the hymn in English as the words were displayed on the page, but when I made my way to the end of the song, everyone continued singing. We were not told how many times to repeat the hymn, but it went on and on until in ended naturally at the same moment. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I had finally caught on to the rhythm of our singing, I closed my eyes and began to hear all of the other voices singing faithfully in their native tongue. Without a doubt, that moment as I sat on the floor of a enormous sanctuary in France, was the closest I have ever been to experiencing the day of Pentecost in my own life.

 

The community of faith had recently witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then retreated to the upper room in Jerusalem to devote themselves to patience and prayer. For ten days they waited, as they had been told to do, waiting for something to happen. We are given very little in Acts about what they did those ten days but we do know that rather than taking matters into their own hands, instead of getting organized and venturing forth with pamphlets about “what God can do for YOU”, they waited for God to make the next move.

The day of Pentecost, what we celebrate and remember today here in church, was the first big thing to happen to the disciples after Jesus had left them. Like the start of any life or story, the beginning has major ramifications for how the rest will turn out. Just as with Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem to a virgin, so too the details surrounding the birth of the church would come to define the rest of the story for Jesus’ followers.

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As the morning broke, while the disciples were all together in one place, an eruption of sounds and a wind from heaven filled the entire house. Things were coming loose and breaking open, new realities were taking shape, and the life of discipleship was changed forever. The wind swirled around the gathered people, the same wind which on the very first morning swept across the dark waters and brought order out of chaos. The wind of Genesis was again bringing something new to life.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and each of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. What a strange and profound moment this must have been! After days of waiting in prayer God had showed up and quickly put things into action. Though the Spirit brought order out of chaos in Genesis, this must have felt like the opposite. I imagine the disciples running about within the house exclaiming great things in languages they themselves had never heard before. Something this incredible and inexplicable could not be contained to one house alone, and a crowd quickly gathered and was bewildered by the indescribable moment.

Jews from all over had gathered in Jerusalem when this took place and they began to hear these nobody disciples speaking in the native languages of all the people. Amazed by this, they questioned how it was possible, and quickly decided to blame it on an excessive use of alcohol.

The crowd’s demand for an answer was a cue for one of the disciples to stand and speak. And who, among the disciples, could have imagined that Peter would have been the one to do so? Peter is the first, the very first to lift up his voice and proclaim proudly and faithfully the word that he was unable to when Jesus had been arrested. The man who had been so quick to deny Christ three times, is the one who stepped forward to share the glory of God’s kingdom with all who questioned this miracle.

Peter preached a sermon, he shared the story of God in Christ, all by the power of the Spirit: “listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, winds, and signs that God did through him among you, and you yourselves know — this man, who was handed over to be crucified and killed, was raised by God, having been freed from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power…” Peter told the story that he had witnessed and thus helped give birth to the church that we now participate in today.

 

I have been here at St. John’s for almost a year. The last twelve months have been filled with changes, excitement, new life, and joy. I give glory to God for sending me to a place with such faithful people who have helped me to see God in new and wonderful ways, while also allowing me to do the same. 

I knew that, upon arrival, one of the most important things I could do would be to learn the collective story of the church. I have met with many of you to learn about your lives and your stories in such a way that I could learn about our community that gathers here for worship. When I meet with couples I almost always ask the same question: How did you two meet? I ask this question because how two people met says a considerable amount about their relationship, and most people love to tell that particular story.

I can tell you with joy this morning, that many of you met in wonderful and joyful ways. I have had the privilege to hear about a couple who met on a Greyhound bus traveling to Radford, VA over 65 years ago. We have a couple who met at a brewery when the young woman complimented the young man on his beard. Or there’s the couple who met in a spousal grief group after having both been divorced. We even have a couple who met here in church and the boy asked his brother to the get the number of the girl so he could ask her out later.

I love asking how a couple met because people can tell the story with all the important details. They can remember the outfits they were wearing, the weather outside, and the other people who were present. They can describe with vivid clarity that first smile they saw, or the way their fingers felt when they wove them together for the first time. And frankly, I love asking the question because it is hilarious to watch men and women argue about the details of a meeting from their own perspectives.

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

But sometimes I think about the gospel story and I wonder how that connects us. I freely admit that when I ask couples about how they met I am not expecting anyone to start talking about Moses or Abraham or the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel story is one that we should know just as well. Many of you have been attending church for your whole lives, and even those of you who have recently started to attend, have heard the story of God in Christ week in and week out. The story that we find in scripture is inescapable because it is ours. 

I ask people about who they met because it teaches me about whom they are. It helps to reveal parts and aspects of personality that would otherwise remain hidden, it sheds light on what brings people joy and how they connect with others. But in the same way, the Gospel is who we are. It is as much a part of our personalities and joy and interconnected as the story about how we met our spouses.

When Peter stood in front of the crowd on the day of Pentecost he told the story of God in the world through Jesus, his friend and Lord. With confidence and bravery he proclaimed the same story that we tell here in church every week. We should know the story that Peter shared, we should be able to tell it with the same clarity and detail and faithfulness. Imagine how powerful the gospel story would be, if you knew it and believed it and experienced it in the same way you met your spouse.

The gospel is something worth sharing. I don’t mean in the sense that you should start knocking on people’s doors to ask: “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” But I want to question our willingness to keep telling this wonderful and life-giving story.

After all, how would anyone know whether or not you’re a Christian?

Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, or you pray before your meals at restaurants, or you tell people about what fun activities are going on at your church… But seriously, how would anyone know if you’re a Christian?

We can tell the story of God’s interaction in the world through ways that are both faithful and fruitful. Like those first disciples the Holy Spirit has been poured on to us in such a way that we are now filled with the Spirit and have been given gifts. The disciples were given the power to speak in numerous languages in order to convey the gospel to the multitudes. Today we have been given the power to meet people where they are in order to be Christ’s body for the world.

Imagine the next time someone started to tell you about a recent tragedy, you responded by asking to pray for them. Or the next time you hear about a family thats having a difficult time adjusting to a new life in Staunton, you invite them over for dinner out of kindness rather than expectation. Or the next time you believe that someone has been treated unjustly, you speak up for them rather than expect someone else to do it. And when you’re asked why you have done these things, answer truthfully and confidently: “I am a disciple of Jesus.”

The Spirit that empowered those disciples still empowers us. Like the cacophony of languages that were all singing to the Lord at Taize, we are called to raise our voices, to go public with the good news. As we see with the way Peter proclaimed the story on behalf of the church, we also have something to say, we need only the courage to stand up, open our mouths, and begin.

Amen.