This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans
Tag Archives: God
We Begin (And End) With Grace
1 Corinthians 1.3
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.
I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.
I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!
Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.
What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it.
Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”
Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace.
It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems.
God is perfect; we are not.
God is holy; we are not.
We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God.
And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God.
God Is God And We Are Not
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Christmas Pageant stories are a dime a dozen.
I, myself, stood in a different pulpit helping narrate a particular pageant when one of the shepherds turned his staff upside down and ignited it like a lightsaber. Were it not for a daring dive from the aforementioned pulpit, the shepherd would’ve beheaded a wiseman, an angel, and at least three sheep.
There was another pageant when a kid dressed as a donkey decided to take a nap on the chancel steps in the middle of the drama, and remained there until after the applause died down at the end and everyone heard him say, “Mom?”
There’s a wonder and a beauty to the way children lead us in worship. Whether it’s the theological daring answers during a Children’s message, to the way they give themselves over completely to the movement of the Spirit, to the various pageant pronouncements, the glory of the Lord is revealed.
There’s a story that passes around this time of year every year about a certain pageant and the child who played the innkeeper. For weeks and weeks all the children practiced their positions and their lines, they were ready. But when Christmas Eve arrived, and the little Mary, Joseph, and plastic Jesus arrived at the cardboard cut out entrance to the inn, they knocked on the door and the innkeeper froze. Little Mary kept repeating her line, “Please let us in. We’re cold and we really need a place to stay!” Getting louder with each repetition. Until, finally, the innkeeper looked out into the congregation and said to the pageant coordinator, “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘No,’ but can I let them in anyway?”
Kids get it.
The Psalmist declares, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”
There’s a better than good chance that every one of us here has a story in which a child or a kid or a youth pointed us to a greater reality about the kingdom, than we could come to on our own. For instance, I was with my family in Alexandria this last week, celebrating the holidays, and we decided to go visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. She died last year at this time.
And as we were dressing the kids and getting them into our various cars, my nephew asked, “Where are we going?” And I said, “We’re going to see Omi.” And he gave me this puzzled look and said, “But Omi’s with Jesus now.”
Kids get it.
But then the psalmist drops this on our dozing heads: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
What a brutal question!
That God considers us, at all, is beyond our deserving. That God listens to our prayers is downright ridiculous. We tend to look at all we’ve done and said with such pride and glory, but compared to the works of God we are a bunch of ants.
The God who called the universe into being out of nothing, who brought forth order out of chaos, who breathed life into creation, is probably not very impressed with the Lego set I built a few days ago, or the meal I cooked for my family, or even this sermon I crafted.
All things considered, there’s nothing terribly special about humanity. We’re a bunch of creatures who often make a mockery of the creation that God has given to us.
Sure, we can point to some of our achievements, save for the fact that some of the worst things we’ve ever done as a species were done in the name of progress.
What makes us unique isn’t what we can, or can’t, do, but the fact that God becomes one of us. God did not become a penguin, God became a human, a particular human in the person of Jesus Christ. And, notably, God did not just show up as a fully formed adult human being – God shows up as a baby!
That’s the message of the incarnation. And it is so bewildering that people like us decorate trees, and exchange gifts, and light candles year after year to celebrate God’s unwavering commitment to us.
But the only reason we, that is Gentiles, even know about this enough to celebrate it is because of what we call Epiphany, the feast that marks the visit of the Magi and the expansion of the kingdom to those outside the people Israel.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ birth wise men/magi from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews because they observed a rising star and came to pay their respect. There’s a frightening plot by King Herod to put to an end any threat to his power, but the magi make haste to Bethlehem where they discover the star leading them to the location of the baby Jesus.
When they encounter the baby born king they do something strange. It would be one thing to bring gifts to a king, stranger still to give those gifts to a baby born to a poor Jewish woman and her soon-to-be husband. But scripture says that when the magi saw Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him and were overwhelmed with joy.
Epiphany is the celebration of that moment. We mark it on the liturgical calendar because it both points to the wild character of the incarnation, God in the flesh as a baby, but also to the way in which the glory of Jesus’ birth stretches beyond the confines of Israel.
Jesus will certainly grow to enact miracles and make various proclamations about the ever widening nature of the kingdom, but this is the radical beginning of that expansion.
Jesus comes for a lot of reasons – to save us, to show us how the kingdom works, to reveal the nature of God. But one of the things we often overlook is that Jesus helps us to become fully human.
That’s a strange claim to make. You might expect to hear that Jesus helps us to become better Christians, or fuller Christians. And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”
The kingdom of God, therefore, isn’t just for certain sets of people in particular places. The kingdom of God is for everyone. When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we mean that he is the fullness of humanity and the fullness of God. If we want to know what it means to be human, we need not look further than Jesus Christ, for his life was love.
Maybe that’s why the magi fell to their knees and worship. Not because they intellectually understood the proclamation of the incarnation, of because they rationally deduced the momentous moment in front of them, but because they encountered love in the flesh, true and full humanity in a baby.
The presence of the magi in the manger means that the love that is God is for people even like us. And whenever we encounter that total radical love, whether it’s here in church, or at school, or at work, or around the dinner table, we can’t help but worship. It is nothing short of amazing that God, author of the cosmos, loves us and is as close to us as a baby being rocked in our arms or the bread and cup at the table.
An important theological claim is that God is God and we are not. It keeps things squarely where they are supposed to be. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, and all that.
But then, in the incarnation, everything takes on a strange and wondrous dimension. Because even though God is God and we are not, God willingly choose to become us, that we might discover who we are and whose we are.
Which, in the end, is why the psalmist can sing: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Amen.
The Mother of God
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and can choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
That’s a strange way to start a sermon.
The practice of using gender-inclusive language for the divine has been around for awhile but it really came into vogue shortly before I arrived in seminary. It’s a willingness to confront the masculine pronouns often attributed to God: God as he.
The reason being that God is not a he, unless we’re talking about Jesus.
Of course, scripture and grammar lends itself to this. We pray to God as Father and all of that. But there are actually plenty of moments in the Old Testament when God is given feminine attributes, and even Jesus uses feminine attributes for God in the New Testament, we just rarely talk about them.
Again, what’s at stake here is the fact that God is not like us. God is, to use an expression of Barth’s, totally other. Therefore, to use human attributes, particularly gendered attributes for God, makes God like us.
And so there began a push while I was in school to stop referring to God as he. True story: we would have one point taken away per gendered reference to God in our papers, which taught us how to adapt quickly.
Perhaps you have noticed, but maybe not, when I preach I try my best to not masculinize God. In other words, I try to avoiding pronoun-ing God. And sometimes it makes for a strange sentence. But it’s important. God is not a man. God is God.
Of course there are some, who in order to offer a corrective to the masculinity of God rendered in church, will feminize God and refer to God as she, or mother. Which, I think, can be helpful. God is both paternal and maternal. But it still puts God in our own terms, rather than letting God speak to us about who God is.
And yet, there is a more radical notion about the identity of God that we often overlook or downright ignore.
You know what’s more radical than talking about God as our mother? The fact that God has one.
700 years before the Advent of Christ, the people of God were in a time of war and fear. The city of Jerusalem was besieged during the reign of Ahaz and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon. And in the midst of this terror, the Lord asks Ahaz if he would like a sign of God’s power. And, inexplicably, Ahaz refuses! Which leave the prophet Isaiah to lament, “Is it not enough to weary everyone else, now you’ve moved to wearying God?”
And the Lord offers this sign whether Ahaz wants it or not: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Notably, Isaiah does not say that “a” young woman will bear a child named Immanuel. Isaiah says “the” young woman will do so. “The” is the definite article indicating that not just anyone will give birth to this Promised One, but someone in particular would do it. We, of course, did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the Mother of God, the mother of Jesus. Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry and birth Jesus is Mary.
It’s difficult, I fear, for us to imagine the bewildered reception of Isaiah’s proclamation. We are so storied by the story of Christmas, moved by its majesty, that we can scarcely fathom the oddity of the prophet’s promise.
The city is under siege, hope is lost, and the Lord says, “A baby is coming.”
A baby? What about a ruthless warrior, or a fearsome king, or a charismatic leader? Surely that’s what God people needed! And yet, God says the sign is the woman who will bear a child named Immanuel.
That God chooses the woman as the sign, that God enacts God’s purposes through this young woman is so confounding.
What we dare to proclaim about God is that God willingly gets involved in the flesh and blood and bone of human life. The God we worship is en-wombed in Mary.
There’s a reason we don’t talk much about Mary. There are a lot of reasons actually. Most of them stem from our patriarchal renderings of existence. Some of them stem from the fact that we are Protestant and don’t want to be associated with the Mary-worship that happens in the Catholic Church. And yet, to ignore Mary, is to ignore the radical notion of the Incarnation.
The ignorance of Mary results in a form of Christendom in which men continue to feel as if they are superior to women.
Patriarchy is real, the unjust rule of men over women exists and its wrong. And not just because of our modern sensibilities of equality, it’s wrong because of the fact that God is born of Mary!
Listen – Mary, as we say in certain theological circles, is the THEOTOKOS, the God-bearer. And, so named, she safeguards the fleshiness of God. Without her the God we worship remains aloof, but with her, the God we worship becomes one of us.
There is something almost outrageously particular about the fact that God’s fleshy presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth. Which is made all the more wild when we realize that Isaiah told God’s people this would happen 700 years before it did.
We tend to lob all these titles and distinctions upon God. God is almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, or whatever big seminary word we want to use. And all of that is fine. God is the author of the cosmos after all. But to claim God as enfleshed, that God has a birth and a death, is at the heart of the scandal that makes our faith, faith.
Even Martin Luther, who so famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, (which was simply called church until Luther started something different), Luther was wary of the church’s veneration of Mary and how close it was coming to idolatry. But even Luther was quick to note, “Mary breastfed God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God.”
Have you ever thought about the Gospel that way before?
If we take the strange new world of the Bible seriously, then Mary also changed God’s diapers, taught God songs to sing, taught God the stories of the faith, even the promise of the coming Messiah who was rocking in her arms the entire time.
Similarly, Charles Wesley praised Mary as one, “Who gave all things to be, what a wonder to see, God born of this creature, and nursed on her knee.”
Mary, an ordinary young woman from Nazareth, keeps the incarnation scandalous.
Not to jump too solidly into the New Testament, but, Mary’s “Let it be” opens the way for a new eruption of grace into the world. We might call “Let it be” the Gospel according to Paul McCartney, but its actually the Gospel according to Mary!
Mary writes the best (can we say that?) song in the Gospels, a song we refer to as the Magnificat. It demonstrates her profound knowledge and love of the scriptures, and is perhaps the must frequently sung song throughout all of church history.
Mary is present and is also the instigator of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (water to wine). And she and others are present at the cross when the disciples flee.
Moreover, Mary is in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, and she receives the same Spirit that sets the church in motion.
But wait, there’s more: Throughout the early history of the church up through the Middle Ages, there were more paintings done of Mary than of Jesus!
The young woman with child of Isaiah’s proclamation is Mary, the flesh and blood Mother of God. Mary is not an idea, she is not a myth. She is a real person, as real as you and me. She is a real person who made decisions upon which our faith depends.
We often fail to embody the embodied nature of our faith because, at some point, we assume that whatever our faith is it is at least a set of ideas or slogans. Ideas that help us make sense of the world, or slogans to help us behave better and therefore fix the world.
But the witness of the faith cannot be summarized on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. It cannot be expressed through ideas or slogans.
It cannot because our faith, oddly enough, hinges on a young Jewish woman named Mary.
Here we are, at the end of Advent, preparing to dress up the kids next week for a pageant, and perhaps we do well to remember that Mary was not only real, she was also unlikely. That God chooses her, from a forgotten town with no bright hope for tomorrow, is wild beyond imagining.
That God chooses any of us for God’s purposes is outrageous.
We would never have chosen to do it this way.
But, then again, we are not God. Thank God we are not God.
Because of the proclamation of Mary’s womb, God has given us more than we deserve, God has given us reason to be patient because the cosmos hinges not upon what we do, but upon what has been done for us.
Therefore, here on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given the hope that we can learn to wait. Not unlike the Israelites waited for God to keep God’s promise. Not unlike Mary waited nine months with her belly swelling. Not unlike the disciples waited three days after the crucifixion.
Waiting is part of the discipline of learning what it means to be creatures of time.
Time is a gift and a burden. That we have time at all is nothing short of God’s grace. But our time is limited. We must be born and we must die – Advent refuses to let us pretend otherwise. And yet, at the same time, Advent stories us. That is, Advent teaches us who we are and whose we are.
Stories, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and some are long. Some are funny and some are not. Some are defined by all sorts of words, and others can be summarized with “Let it be.”
We, all of us, are storied creatures.
And, strangely, the great Good News of Advent is that our time has been storied by Jesus Christ, born of Mary. Mary makes possible our stories because she bears God into the world. God takes on flesh and dwells among us which gives us the grace to be, and become, fully human.
It’s rather extraordinary, when we can take a step back from it all, that we know the name of the Lord’s mother! And yet, even more extraordinary is the fact that God chose to come and make time for us, redeeming out time, and making possible the salvation that disrupts time forever.
Our time is so redeemed because Mary’s son is Immanuel, God with us.
No matter what.
Whether we are on the naughty list or the nice list, God is with us.
Whether we have gobs of presents under the tree, or if we haven’t had the time to get a tree at all, God is with us.
Whether we have more Christmases ahead of us, or only a few left, God is with us.
Behold! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Thanks be to God.
The Folly of Pride
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Folly of Pride
One Of Us!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the unexpected Gospel, Holes, sacrifices, Fleming Rutledge, relationships, LCD Soundsystem, singing our prayers, God’s loquaciousness, judgment, eschatological hope, Dogmatics In Outline, Sunday clothes, and preparation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: One Of Us
The Call To Curiosity
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up our of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honest, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What name shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”
God can be so frustrating.
There are times, maybe you’re better than me so you don’t know what I’m talking about, but there are times when I jump into the strange new world of the Bible and I just want to say, “C’mon God! Really?”
Moses is a good-for-nothing shepherd. And he doesn’t even have his own flock to look after. He’s working for his father-in-law. So we’ve got this guy, who needs a handout from a relative, working out and around Mt. Horeb, which means wasteland, and he encounters the burning bush.
Or, better but, the burning bush encounters him.
Does it ever surprise you that the Lord needs numbskulls to bring about God’s will?
I mean, just take a cursory glance at just about any book in the Bible and you liable to come across someone who has no business being in God’s business and yet, that’s how God runs the show.
And that’s not even mentioning who God calls upon outside of the Bible.
To bring it close to home, there are 29 portraits of pastors right underneath us and there’s a better than good chance that the vast majority of them never thought they would have their picture up on the wall of a church.
And yet, here we are.
Sometimes I wish God would start calling better people for God’s purposes. Surely, the world could do to have the best and the brightest working for the kingdom.
But, then again, if God only called the best, then I certainly wouldn’t be here, and neither would any of you.
John Calvin, who gets quoted across the street far more than here once said, “God is so great, that God is able to condescend to miserable people just like us to accomplish God’s good.”
How odd of God.
And, notably, it’s important to notice the distinction between “I found God,” and “God found me.” Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, people do, indeed, go looking for God but they usually go looking in all the wrong places whereas God shows up in the unexpected places.
Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, or even here about it in church, God is not the object of our religious journeys, waiting for us to finally have enough sense to take the right steps or read the right book or get the right job or make the right choice. God is, instead, the instigator of God’s journey to us. From Eden, to the wasteland, to Bethlehem; God finds us.
And that’s why we keep reading these stories week after week, year after year. It’s why we prepare for Vacation Bible School and read scripture at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. We keep listening to the story of how God reveals God’s self to people who otherwise would have never known who God was or is.
And (!) to further complicate the confounding nature of the God who speaks from bushes and books, particularly as it pertains to preaching, is that only God can tell us who God is. It has to be revealed to us.
Listen – All is well in Egypt until it isn’t.
God’s people grow in such size and strength that Pharaoh grows fearful and subjugates them. They are forced to work under the tyrannical rule of the empire and yet, they continue to prosper in power and number.
Pharaoh then decides to order the murder of every first born male among the Hebrew people. A young mother, fearing for her son’s life, places him in a basket and lets him float down the Nile river and, oddly enough, the basket is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who chooses to raise the boy and she names him Moses which means “I drew him out of the water.”
Raised in the confines, and under the protection, of Egypt’s ruler, Moses is given access to a life that none of his kinsmen will ever know. And yet, one day, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster whipping a Hebrew slave and, overcome with emotion, Moses reaches out and murders the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.
Moses flees for his very life, already a recurring theme, and he settles in the land of Midian where he marries Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, and begins to work for his new father-in-law.
So why, why in the world does God call to Moses from the burning bush? What’s so good on his resume, what kind of references did he list while seeking out employment with the Lord?
Moses really only brings three things to the table:
He’s in the middle of his mundane work, guiding the flock in the wasteland, when he turns aside to see the sight of the burning bush. In short, Moses is curious.
That’s not much, all things considered, but to the Lord it is the difference that makes all the difference. Moses turns to take in something unexpected, and rather than lowering his head and getting back to the menial realities of life, he takes a further look.
He is like the proverbial worker surrounded by countless cubicles mindlessly typing away at a keyboard for a job that means nothing when a suddenly flickering in the window draws him up and away from his featureless desk toward the unknown.
It is good and right to maintain a healthy diet of curiosity, of keeping our eyes and ears tuned away from monotony. Be it a strange movie or meal or moment, God tends to work in the unexpected places in unexpected ways.
Or, as one of my favorite authors Haruki Murakami puts it, “If you only read the books everyone else is reading, then you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
After Moses’ curiosity draws his gaze toward the bush, the next thing he does is wonder. The strange fiery foliage isn’t enough on its own, Moses wants to know why it burns but does not burn up. He is not content to let things be the way they are simply because they are that way, he probes further.
It is good and right to wonder about the workings of God.
It does my ego good to remember that none of you come here with the great desire to hear preachments about the Lord, but instead you are here to daydream about God, to wonder, to ask questions, and rest in whatever answers you discover.
A couple weeks ago one of you asked me, after church, about the Apostles’ Creed and why we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” I won’t out you, but this person said, “Why do we say that? We’re Methodists, not Catholics.” And I gave the typical response, “it’s the lower-c catholic which means universal, we’re just saying we believe in the church writ large.”
This kind of question pops up all the time, but what struck me most this time was the fact that the person then said, “I’ve wondered about that my whole life, and I’ve never had the nerve to ask.”
Faith is a strange and wondrous thing that necessities wonder. That’s why the disciples are forever asking Jesus to elaborate on the kingdom of heaven, they want to know more.
Moses is curious and Moses wonders about this strange sight in the wasteland, and when the Lord sees Moses’ curiosity and wonder the Lord says, “Moses, Moses!” And he says, “Here I am.”
In short, Moses responds.
“Kick those sandals off your feet, we’ve got holy business to attend to. I am the God of your people, and the time has come to set them free and I have just the person for the job.”
“And who might that be?”
“You, silly goose.”
“Are you out of your mind? You’re a talking bush that’s on fire! And you want me to deliver the Hebrew people from Pharaoh?”
“Have no fear Moses my dear, I will be with you.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me fiery fig tree, or whatever it is you are, even if what you’re saying is true, no one will believe me when I tell them. I don’t even know your name.”
God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”
The rest is biblical history.
When it comes to the question of “Why Moses?” It doesn’t really matter. Sure, there are some bits to his history that make him a prime candidate for paradigm shifts, he spent time in Pharaoh’s court. In the end, who he is doesn’t matter.
The only thing that matters is that God is the one doing the calling.
You see, God does God’s best work making something of our nothing, of making a way where there is no way whatsoever, of making the impossible possible.
We, today, tend to view ourselves and one another through failures, mistakes, shortcomings. It is the negative that we carry around day after day. But to God, each and every one of us has a potentiality that can be made manifest in the kingdom of God.
Or, to use a very old adage, God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called.
Think about Moses! In just a few short chapters this would-be shepherd in the wasteland will be taking care of the flock of God, standing up to the tyranny of Pharaoh, delivering the Hebrew people to the banks of the sea waiting for the God of impossible possibility to do something.
It’s fun to pick on Moses, he’s an easy target. The rest of his tale paints the picture of his relationship with God like an old married couple who constantly bicker and fight and eventually reconcile. For what it’s worth, we read more about Moses than any other person in the Bible with the exception of Jesus. And yet, Moses’ story isn’t even really about Moses – it’s about the One who calls him.
I AM WHO I AM
I love how quickly Moses moves from “Here I am,” to “Who am I?” His curiosity and wonder and response are all good and fine until he hears what the Lord wants him to do. And immediately, Moses has reservations. Who am I to do all of that?
Who am I?
Who are you?
Whatever it is your experiencing in your life right now, whether you feel like you’re wandering through the wasteland or making moves on the mountaintop, God calls miserable and merry people like you and me all the time. It might not be to deliver God’s people from the oppressive rule of a dictator, it might be as simple as the nudge to call someone who needs to feel loved, or the feeling that there’s something we can do to make a difference in this community. And it might not come through a burning bush, it might be as simple as the words of a hymn, or the silence of a prayer, or any other number of possibilities.
Or, as Paige Anderson so wonderfully put it to me this week, “Sometimes all we need in life is the tiniest sign from God to remind us of our purpose.”
What makes the story of the burning bush so good is the fact that, in the end, the call of Moses is a wild and ringing reminder that we don’t have to be saints to be of use for God’s kingdom. If we need anything at all, it’s a little bit of curiosity, wonder, the tiniest smidge of faith.
Faith not in ourselves or our abilities, but faith in the God who is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine.
If you ever feel like you’re not good enough, that’s fine. Because God is good enough for all of us. Amen.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Last week I paced through the “seasonal” aisle at the grocery store looking for the right Valentines. Was I searching for the items that would perfectly convey my love for my wife? No. Instead, I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could distribute during his celebration of the holiday in his kindergarten class.
Tucked away behind the heart shaped boxes of chocolate varieties was a solitary box of Mandalorian Valentines, and I knew that Elijah would delight in giving them to all his friends.
And this morning, as I walked him to school, I asked him if he knew why he was bringing Valentines to school and he said, “I’m sure it has something to do with Jesus.”
And he wasn’t wrong!
Valentine’s Day is a particularly striking holiday because of the juxtaposition from how it started to what it looks like today.
There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. That is, their commitment to the kingdom of God was such that the powers and principalities believed the only way to stop them was to kill them.
But perhaps the most famous Valentine was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought in his blind daughter and asked for her to be healed. If Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.
Valentine, then, placed his hands on the girl’s blind eyes and her vision was restored.
Overcome by the miracle, the judge agreed to get baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.
Later, Valentine was arrested (again) for his continued attempts to share the Good News and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine attempted to convince the Claudius to convert to the faith, but then Valentine was condemned to death unless he renounced his own faith.
Valentine refused and was beheaded on… (wait for it)… February 14th, 269.
Later additions to the story proclaim that, shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a letter to the young girl he once healed and he signed it, “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspire the holiday we now enjoy.
So, what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of roses?
The book of Genesis is full of family betrayals and deceits. Particularly dreadful is the story of Jacob being sold into slavery by his brothers because they couldn’t handle their own jealousy. Jacob makes a name for himself in Egypt and eventually reconciles with the very brothers who abandoned/betrayed him when they come looking for food to eat.
Jacob’s love for his brothers was such that, even though they ruined his life, he “kisses them and weeps upon them.”
Love is awful like that. It can make us do crazy and bewildering things. At least, they are crazy and bewildering according to the world.
But consider what we do on Valentine’s Day: we throw away gobs of money on trivial and fleeting items. The flowers will eventually fade and the chocolate will expire.
But others will say that St. Valentine’s willingness to die for his faith, and Jacob’s willingness to forgives his brothers, is even crazier.
Love is a crazy thing.
It also happens to be how God feels about us.
God, in Christ, full of hope and grace and mercy mounts the hard wood of the cross to die for us. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
God Goes Buck Wild
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 1.1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9.11-14, Mark 12.28-34). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cheesy novels, the tenacity of human relationships, relevance, wedding texts, biblical agency, praise, faithful children, bloody hymns, at-one-ment, the words of life, and the end of questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Goes Buck Wild
The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes. Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountain. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head.
Then he said to them, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
A political movement turned radically violent.
The mob stormed gates, climbed walls, destroyed doors, and they shattered any assumptions of safety and sanctity.
Anyone who stood in their way was attacked, beaten to the ground, and left behind. The insurrectionists used whatever they could to turn their feelings into signs of force, from flags to banners to fists.
Once inside, they searched methodically for those who represented what they came to destroy. They obliterated images and symbols that for centuries stood the test of time.
And outside, while the crowds chanted with frightening vigor, a sign was held high above for all to see:
Sadly, what took place in and around the Capitol at the beginning of January was not as unprecedented as some have claimed. Throughout history there have been countless examples of those who took matters into their own hands and did whatever they thought necessary to bring about a change.
And, even sadder, has been the use of Christian images/words/symbols to encourage such destruction.
Before they started throwing objects through windows, members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, kneeled in the streets to pray in the name of Jesus.
Contemporary Christian music was played and performed in order to give a righteous feeling to a wholly unrighteous display of aggression.
Among the signs and shirts and slogans from the likes of QAnon, and the Confederate Flag, and Anti-Semitic fervor, there were an equal number of “Jesus 2020” and “The Armor of God” among the rioters.
Even pastors were present in the crowd, yelling into bullhorns about the mission to “save the republic for Christ” all while the throngs screamed in response: “Jesus is Lord!”
The great cacophony of Christianity contains multitudes. There’s a reason there are more Christian denominations than we can keep track of because we cannot agree on what it means to keep the main thing, the main thing.
Part of this challenge stems from the fact that the Bible, what we take as an authority over what it means to follow Jesus, is so wild.
Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from all sorts of different places: from Galilee to Galatia, Antioch to Rome, from tiny towns and massive metropolises, rural farms and seaside ports, prisons and palaces, and all from a wide range of times – 1,500 years!
The Bible contains just about every literary genre from law codes to genealogies to parables to poems, and it was put together by people we don’t know anything about!
And yet, despite all of that, we lift up this bewildering book and confess it to be God’s word for us.
So we take it up and read. We open it right to the middle and come across a Psalm, and we find these words: “The Lord says my lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sent out from Zion your mighty scepter… The Lord is at your right hand; he will scatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations.”
Now, some Christians will respond to these words by taking up matters into their own hands to make their enemies their footstool. They will claim that God is on their side, and they are the righteous messengers of God’s judgment and justice.
Others, of course, will dismiss such a Psalm as being connected to the so-called “violent God of the Old Testament.” They will insist that their God just wants everybody to get along, and to let love rule.
But here’s the thing: The strange new world of the Bible tells the story of the God who is always the one who bends and breaks the bonds of creation in order to get what God wants.
And it’s not always pretty:
The God of scripture sends a flood to wipe out every living being (except for a few who fortunately catch a ride in a very large boat). God breaks down a tower in order to confuse the our speech and scatters humanity across the earth. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to then cast him and his riders into the sea.
I could go on.
Thus, for centuries, people have embraced the violence of God for their own purposes, or they have rejected “that God” in order to embrace something they believe they can find in the hippy dippy lovely dovey God of the New Testament.
But thats not actually how scripture works.
For as righteously angry as God gets in the Old Testament, God is equally ridiculous in loving a people undeserving – God rains down manna from heaven to feed those who complain about God, God brings back a idolatrous nation after years in captivity, God remains faithful to the covenant that God’s people fail, again and again, to hold up.
And, for as much as God is love (revealed in Jesus) in the New Testament, God is equally filled with bitterness.
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“You have turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers,” Jesus says after going off the deep end with his Temple tantrum.
“If any of you cause someone else to stumble,” Jesus says, “it would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were dumped you into the ocean.”
Are we sure we want to worship this Jesus?
Truthfully, though we confess Jesus as Lord with our lips, most of us live as if we are the lords of our lives. We do this because, whether we could articulate it or not, we generally believe that history is developing in an ongoing process of progress. That is, the world is better now than it once was and that we are all responsible for making it better for future generations.
We believe in the power of humanity! With all of our enlightened sensibilities, we assume, sooner or later, we will finally get the chaos of the cosmos under control and we will set everything as it should be.
Which is why so many sermons end with a “lettuce” statement – let us now go forth to make the world a better place, or, frighteningly, let us go and save the republic for Christ.
But here’s the thing: if we could’ve made the world a better place, or even the best place, we would’ve done it long ago.
The challenge for those who wish to follow Jesus is the confession that even though certain things might appear to be better (whatever that might mean) we are still very much who we are: sinners in need of grace.
The question/answer period of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem ends after a whole bunch of controversy regarding authority with Jesus asking his own question. There is disagreement among the religious leaders about this would-be carpenter-Messiah who claims to be from the line of David. At the time, David-like dimensions of Messianic expectation were a dime a dozen – every time a new political leader garnered some power, it was assumed that, like David, he (because it was always a he) would take back the throne in Jerusalem.
The Messiah, to the religious authorities, would be the one to save the people Israel through a new military regime that put the people of God back on top.
And for Jesus, this was not acceptable.
Therefore, being a good teacher, Jesus uses scripture to interpret the present circumstances. “How can it be,” Jesus asks, “for the Messiah to be David’s son? Don’t you all remember what David wrote in the psalms? ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ If David called him Lord, than how can he be David’s son?”
This might seem a trivial point of order, but for Jesus, on the basis of the Psalm, the Messiah is not merely from the line of David. In fact, the Messiah is the Lord of David.
Jesus is then not just another revolutionary come to set the people free from tyrannical oppression, Jesus is God in the flesh come to dwell among the very people who will, in the end, betray him.
“Jesus is Lord” has been a confession of faith since the very beginning. Today, we Christian types often take that confession to mean something to the effect of Jesus being the Lord of my life. And, even though that’s true, it’s also so much more. For, to confess Jesus as Lord is also to confess that Jesus is God.
And Jesus, as God, is going to get what Jesus wants. Jesus will make his enemies his footstool, whether we like it or not.
Again and again in the New Testament, Jesus announces the imminent implementation of a new regime, but it’s not one the people of God were prepared for.
They assumed a military victory, parades of power, and a new throne.
Instead, the were told about a kingdom in which the rich would give to the poor, the captives would be free, the blind would see, and the lame would walk.
Which, all things considered, wasn’t anything new! Those words come from the prophet Isaiah!
Do you see? God doesn’t change from the Old Testament to the New. There’s not some God of the Old Testament and a different God in the New. They are one and the same. They are Trinity.
God, in Christ, puts the enemies of sin and death, the powers and the principles, squarely under the heel of the divine.
But, of course, it happens not in the way anyone could’ve imagined.
A suffering Messiah who is enthroned at the right hand of God? The incarnate Lord dies on the cross only to be raised again? No one expected such a thing to happen.
A Lord who calls his followers to pray for their enemies, to sell their possessions in order to help the poor, to lose their lives in order to save them? Who wants to worship such a reckless God?
The Messiah, the Anointed One, God in the flesh, is always more than we think. In our limited and finite (and frankly foolish) notions of how things work, we assume that power is demonstrated in strength. But Jesus comes to show us how real power comes in weakness.
We assume that our job is to make the world look more like us. But Jesus comes to conquer and overcome the world.
We assume that if we just work hard enough, we can set everything the way it is supposed to be. But then Jesus shows up to remind us that we are sinners, all of us.
Jesus is not just some ethical teacher who wants us to behave ourselves.
Jesus is not some political revolutionary whose words we can cherry pick to suit our needs.
Jesus is not a new David come to elevate us to the places of power and prestige.
Jesus is God!
In himself he is the new creation.
When we open up the strange new world of the Bible, when we read about the Lord in the Psalms, the Lord who brings victory, we are reading about Jesus. But his victory comes not how we or anyone could’ve predicted. Jesus takes our sins and our misery upon himself and away from us. He is able to do this because he is not only the Messiah, but also God, the almighty Creator and Lord who knows me and you better than we know ourselves.
Jesus brings the victory.
Only Jesus saves. Amen.