Jesus Saves

Psalm 110

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. 

Luke 20.41-47

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: 

“Jesus Saves”

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. 

Not you.

Not me.

Only Jesus saves. Amen.

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

Offensive

Psalm 82

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge or understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

John 10.31-39

The Jews took up stones agin to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped form their hands.

Two scenes.

Imagine, if you can, two separate courtroom dramas.

BUM BUM (a la the theme to Law & Order)!

In the first, God sits behind the judgment seat looking out over a room full to the brim with God’s people. They have all meandered in, carrying their own hopes and fears, sins and shames, on their sleeves. They have been elevated to the status of angels because they, unlike the rest of humanity, have received the Torah. And yet they have taken this privilege and squandered it with injustice.

God smacks the gavel and all those gathered sink even lower into their chairs.

God declares, “What is wrong with all of you? How long will you continue to make such a mess of things? All I ask is that you give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the weak and the needy. For once you were no people but now you are my people – start acting like it!”

But they don’t.

They are more concerned with themselves than with others. They do whatever they can to rise to the top and care not one bit about what it costs. They walk around like a people stuck in darkness and they have no hope.

God shakes the very foundations of the earth from God’s divine courtroom and proclaims the verdict: “You are gods, you are children of the Most High, all of you belong to me. Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” 

Justice is served.

In the second courtroom, the tables have turned (literally). Now it is God’s people who sit in the seat of judgment and Jesus, God in the flesh, is the one on trial. 

Jesus has given his whole pitch, proclaimed the kingdom parabolically, as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. But he ends the head-scratching discourse (Consider: what good does it do for the sheep for their shepherd to give his life away?) with a reoccurring connection between himself and the Father.

And now the gathered faithful surround the accused: “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they demand. “How long are you going to annoy us with your stories and cheap parlor tricks? Just tell us who you really are!”

They are looking for some good old plain truth. 

But there is nothing plain about Jesus.

Born God in the flesh to an unwed virgin in Bethlehem.

Heals the sick and feeds the hungry.

Elevates the lowly and brings down the mighty.

There is nothing plain about the Messiah, about a God who speaks from a burning bush, about the One who makes a way where there is no way.

“Look,” Jesus begins, “I have told you again and again who I am, but you don’t believe me. Have you not seen the wonders wrought through these hands? Have you not received parables about the coming and present Kingdom? Have you not witnessed the Father’s work here and now?”

The crowds of judgment bicker among themselves.

“Well, he did feed those 5,000 people…”

“My cousin told me that his friend’s coworker saw him make a blind man see…”

“I heard he can cast out demons…”

Jesus interrupts their discussion, “It’s simple really. The Father and I are one.”

That’s enough for the judge, jury, and executioner! They all rush forward to put him to death but Jesus merely lifts his hands and says, “I have done so many good things for all of you. For which of them are you going to kill me?”

They answer in unison, “It’s not for a good work that we are going to stone you to death, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

“I seem to remember another courtroom of sorts in the Psalms,” Jesus says, “when the Lord called those who received the Word gods. So can you really call me a blasphemer even though I have been sanctified and sent into the world as God’s Son? If you don’t think I’m doing God’s work then fine, don’t believe me. But, at the very least, you can believe in the things I do and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

And they rush forward to enact justice against Jesus, to kill him where he stands, but he escapes, again.

Here’s the matter at hand from the strange new world of the Bible today – Jesus is in a standoff with the religious authorities. He has told them who he is, he has demonstrated who he is, and they still do not believe. The whole of it feels on edge, like a powder keg ready to go off.

The people are dismayed, confused, and downright angry. They want to know when the truth will be revealed. They want to get a glimpse behind the curtain. They want to know who Jesus really is.

But Jesus’ answer fills them not with satisfaction, but with rage.

The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.

Jesus has equated himself with the Lord and the gathered people don’t like it one bit.

And yet, they want to kill him for it?

It can all feel a little exaggerated when we encounter this story, particularly when the Jesus of our minds is the hippie-dippy Jesus who just wants people to get along, a little more love in the world, and would be an excellent guest on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. 

But that’s not who Jesus is, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

Jesus was offensive.

Jesus was offensive to those who trusted in their own reason, in their own understandings of how things were supposed to go because he ran counter to just about everything they could think of.

Jesus was offensive to the practitioners of religious observance because he was forever eating dinner with outcasts, those deemed unclean.

Jesus was offensive to those who sat in the positions of power because with every passing parable and proclamation the calls for the first to be last and the last to be first sounded more like a threat and less like a theory.

But more than all of that, more than the taking people to task, more than upending all the expectations, more than dropping story after story that made things more confusing rather than more clear, the most offensive thing about Jesus to the crowds is that he equates himself with God.

Why should he, a nobody from a nobody town, be the Son of God?

Isn’t God supposed to be perfect, and clean, and morally pure, and removed, and distant, and holy, and hidden, and powerful?

And here’s this Jesus, who insists on spending time with the last, least, lost, little, and dead. He breaks bread with sinners, he dwells in and among the lowliest of the low, he reveals the secrets of the Kingdom, and he demonstrates his power, ultimately, through weakness.

What seems to disrupt and offend the crowds so much is the fact that Jesus points to a truth they can’t stand.

As my friend Kenneth Tanner put it this week: The poverty of God is the greatest wealth in the cosmos, the weakness of God in the human Jesus is the conversion of the world and stronger than any power visible or invisible.

And yet for the crowds, and even for us, that rubs the wrong way. We are a people who are drunk on the illusion of power than comes from human hands, from our own ways and means, but God comes in Christ to remind us that power, real power, comes not from a throne or from violence, but from the cross and from mercy.

And so the crowds rush forward to kill the One in whom they live and move and have their being and Jesus spins the scriptures right back in their faces – How can saying “I am the Son of God” be blasphemy if Psalm 82 does not hesitate to call “sons of God” those to whom the word of God came.

Apparently, even Jesus liked to proof-text every once in a while. 

Notably, the “gods” of Psalm 82 lose their divine-like status for failing to take serious the justice of God and here, in Jesus, the justice of God is made manifest to a people undeserving, namely all of us.

God is Jesus and Jesus is God.

God is at least as nice as Jesus, and at least as zealous as Jesus.

The hiddenness of God is revealed in the person of Christ. The incomprehensibility of God is made known through the life, the teaching, the parables, the miracles, the healings, the feedings, and ultimately the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Which, when you think about it, is rather confounding. Or, perhaps it would be better to call it offensive. 

It is all so offensive because while God in Christ is like us, God in Christ is also completely unlike us.

Consider – How does God in the flesh react to those who are hellbent on stoning him to death? 

Does Jesus respond with retribution and damnation and destruction? 

Does Jesus take up the sword to put people in their place? 

Does Jesus react the way we would?

No.

In the end, God in Christ responds to all that we do with, of all things, forgiveness.

And forgiveness can be the most offensive thing of all.

There’s this great YouTube channel I came across this week where they ask people to respond to a question in one minute or less. They’ve been interviewing theologians and pastors which makes the premise all the better because pastors and theologians aren’t known for their brevity.

Nevertheless, this week they asked Dr. Jane Williams where she finds hope in a time such as ours and her answer was perfect.

She said, “I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.”

The offensive nature of the gospel is both that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and that God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

It’s offensive, but it’s also the gospel. Amen. 

Give God The Verbs

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben DeHart about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Luke 1.46b-55, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38). Ben is the Associate Rector at Calvary-St. George’s Church in NYC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including phenomenal music, the uncontrollable God, riffing on the Magnificat, Kingdom ethics, the Prayer of Humble Access, obedience, impossible possibility, Israel’s calling, Hell, and Fleming Rutledge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Give God The Verbs

Making The Familiar Strange

Matthew 22.34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground. 

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.

Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence. 

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. 

Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.

And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.

This is no easy task.

For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love? 

And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.

Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.

That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.

And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along. 

That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.

But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.

Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”

“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.” 

The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.

“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.

It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.

And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.

Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor. 

Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”

More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.

When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.

When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.

When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.

Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything. 

However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn. 

We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?

A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”

Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.

Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)

Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”

Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!

The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen. 

But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities. 

And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization. 

Instead, love looks like the cross.

And that kind of love is dangerous.

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.  

Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point. 

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.

To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.

And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.

It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.

In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it. 

Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change. 

And, God is love. 

Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen. 

The Faith We Sing

Philippians 2.1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We might not realize it, but we often “sing our faith.”

Well, at least we did back in the days we actually got together in-person for worship. 

Nevertheless, in the United Methodist Church we take seriously the act of singing and how much it teaches us about who we are and who we are.

There are some hymns that, even if I just sing part of verse, you will probably be able to fill in the rest: 

Jesus loves me this I know ______

Amazing Grace how sweet the _____

O come, o come, Emmanuel _____

Jesus Loves Me, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1860. I learned it from my great-grandmother who would sing it just about every time I visited her, it’s one of the de facto songs of Sunday school classrooms, and I can even remember it being used in Preschool as a way to get all of our attentions.

But Jesus Loves Me, for all of its lovely qualities, has only been around for 160 years. 

Amazing Grace, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1779. It’s ubiquity cannot be overstated. I can’t think of a funeral I’ve done where it wasn’t the number one requested hymn – it shows up in the background of hit Television shows, and I’ve heard it quoted from the lips of more politicians than I can count.

But, even with all the amazing qualities of Amazing Grace, it’s only been around 240 years.

Ah, which brings us to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It’s one of the preferred songs for the season of Advent, it has been covered by bands from the likes of Pentatonix to Sufjan Stevens, and it was written in the 9th century. 

It’s over 1,000 years old.

I mean, think about that for just a moment…

Christians have used these words to articulate our faith for a very long time. 

The hymn is older than the United States, the printing press, and even Timbuktu!

And there’s something notable about Christian hymns and how they’ve changed over time. For, if you take a gander at O Come, O Come, Emanuel, the hymn is largely about Jesus, and only secondarily about us. That is, those who follow him.

But as the years and the centuries pass by, the hymns start to flip, they focus more on us and only secondarily about Jesus. 

It’s why you can tune to a Christian radio station today and the subject of almost every song is us. 

“I’m so in love with you Jesus!”

“Our God is greater, Our God is stronger!”

“I believe!”

In our singing, we’ve become the subject of our own worship.

St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, written from behind bars, contains one of the most interesting elements of any of his letters: a hymn.

The so-called Christ Hymn is tucked away here in the second chapter and it predates Paul’s letter.

It’s older than the epistles, it’s older than the gospels, it’s a song the earliest Christians used to articulate their faith.

Listen: 

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It might not sound as catchy as something you can experience on YouTube or on the Radio today, but it’s radical.

It’s meant to shock us, this little collection of verse that Paul shares with the Philippians. Most of us, however, barely respond to it at all because we’ve heard it all before.

But listen again to this: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Again, those lines aren’t original to Paul, in fact, the early Christians who put the hymn together got the words from Isaiah 45 which contains one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry.

Idolatry is whatever happens when we worship any of the little g gods in our life rather than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Idolatry is when we hold up a political candidate as if they will be the ones to save us.

Idolatry is when we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives so long as we can keep the economy stimulated.

Idolatry is when we are so wedded to the powers and principalities of this life that we no longer notice the sin we’re in.

So what is it that Paul does with this song against idolatry. Or, better put, what did the earliest Christians do with it? They stuck Jesus right in the middle.

They, to put it in theological terms, violated the Law with the power of the Gospel.

It’s as is Paul is saying, or perhaps singing, “Jesus knew that power and might aren’t things to be taken but instead given up. Jesus emptied himself of all things. Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich. Jesus gave up his royal robes for a servant’s towel. Jesus humiliated himself to the point of humility. Jesus blessed those who persecuted him. Jesus turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, and forgave no matter the cost. And because that who Jesus is, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”

And that’s shocking – it’s shocking because the name that is above every name is Yahweh – I AM. It is the One who spoke from the burning bush to Moses, the one who delivered a people enslaved all the way to the Promised Land, the One who turned the world upside down.

Paul mics drops through the centuries this frighteningly Good News – The Lord is Jesus.

John Wesley, founder of this crazy thing we call Methodism today, said that if God wanted to, God could’ve been Sovereign. That is: God could’ve controlled us like puppets and made us do every little thing that God wanted. God could’ve smacked us into shape for stepping out of line or rewarded us with little prizes for making good choices.

But instead, Wesley said, God chose to be Jesus. 

God chose to come across the great chasm between Creator and Creature to dwell among us in the muck and mire of life.

God took on flesh, in humility humiliated God’s self to come and be with us.

God became Jesus for us.

It happens a lot in my line of work – the unannounced drop by, the casual (but not really) phone call, the email filled with ellipses. Someone shows up in my life, offers a few remarks that really have little to do with anything, when they finally share what they’ve kept all bottled up.

Their sin.

A wife who’s been cheating on her husband.

An individual who fled the scene after a hit and run.

A kid who made one too many bad choices at a party.

And almost every one of those conversations ends the same way – with a question.

Having emptied themselves of the baggage, having confessed the condition of their condition, they then ask, “Do you think I’m a sinner?”

“Do you think I’m a sinner?”

And one of the great privileges of my profession is that I get to answer that question like this:

“Of course you’re a sinner… but so am I. And Jesus happens to loves sinners.”

What do we really think God is like? Is God angry with us, is God a totalitarian dictator who is willing to torture us into better behavior? Is God keeping a ledger of every little mistake we make in order to determine where we should end up in the end?

Or, is God like Jesus?

Is God the One who, in humility, takes on flesh just to welcome outcasts and sinners?

Is God the One who, time and time again, describes the Kingdom like a wedding feast to which all of the wrong kinds of people are invited?

God became what we are. That’s what the Christ Hymn is all about, it’s what Paul is banging over the heads of the disciples in Philippi – God became what we are.

It is in God’s unending graciousness that God travel into the far country, into the brokenness of this world, our world, which is not God and is so often against God. And God made, and makes, that journey to us, for us.

Jesus is God, says the hymn that has articulated the faith longer than any other hymn.

And, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones.

God says to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you,” even though scripture condemned her behavior.

God says to the sinning tax collector, and the murderer, and the fill in the blank, “I’m feasting with you tonight,” even though scripture calls them unclean.

God says to the thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though scripture claims the opposite.

God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, forgives those who haven’t a clue in the world and those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks and cavorts with the very people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.

Which is kind of the whole point.

God chose to die, even death on a cross, out of love for the sinners we are.

Contrary to how we often discuss it, both publicly and in secret, God doesn’t respond to the crosses we build in this life with more crosses. God doesn’t abide by an eye for an eye. Instead, God’s answer to our brokenness and our sinfulness is Easter.

Resurrection.

And that is humiliating. 

It’s humiliating because we don’t deserve it. 

We worship a crucified God, hanging dead on the cross because we put him there.

And God comes back, to us!

Jesus, whose name is above all names, Jesus is the one to whom we owe our allegiance – the one we worship. Jesus is God. And God, knowing our sin, chose to be with us and for us. 

That’s the faith we sing. 

Not some version of our own progress toward better-ness. Not some repetitive chorus about where we become the subjects of our worship.

The faith we sing is that God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us. Amen.

Think Small or: Don’t Think At All

1 Peter 1.18-21

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

With each passing day of this pandemic, I’ve come across countless posts and articles all about how to make the most of the time we now have on our hands. Which, of course, doesn’t even address the many who still have to work in the midst of all this and those who are putting their lives on the line so that others can have the aforementioned extra time on their hands. Nevertheless, I know people who are using this time to lose those ten pounds they’ve been meaning to get rid of, or become amateur sourdough bakers, or become professional live-streaming worship pastors.

Meanwhile, the talking heads on television are pitting the different political operatives against one another while blaming them for putting us in the mess in the first place.

Similarly, certain individuals are choosing to directly ignore the calls for social-distancing because they believe it is infringing on their freedoms.

And finally, special interest groups are pressuring elected leaders to “reopen” their respective jurisdictions for fear of what the long-term effects will be for the economy.

All of this can fall into the category of “thinking big.” Rather than addressing the small and local concerns that are, somewhat, within our control, we pass the buck along to someone else in hopes that they can bring about the change that requires the least from us. Or, a little closer to home, we’re feeling pressured to make the most of this pandemic by reimagining ourselves and fixing all the things we’ve let go for too long. 

The problem with “thinking big” is that it almost never works. 

Wendell_Berry_C_Guy_Mendes

Back in 1972, in the midst of the rise of feminism, racial reconciliation, and environmentalism, Wendell Berry had this to say on “thinking big”:

“For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enrichment of the government. But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his/her own, is already solving the problem. A person who is trying to live as neighbor to their neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of peace and humanity, and let there be no mistake about it – they are doing that work.” – Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony 1972

The challenges, and problems, that feminism/racial reconciliation/environmentalism aimed to erase are still very much a part of the fabric of our reality. It’s been nearly fifty years since Wendell Berry wrote those words and women are still paid less than men, racism is very much alive, and the environment has passed the point of no return. (However, strangely enough, certain cities across the globe are seeing the skylines without smog for the first time in decades because everyone has been forced to stay inside).

The critique from 1972 is just as relevant today as it was then. The more we assume, or hope, that necessary changes will be accomplished by other people further up the ladder, the longer we will be disappointed. The same holds true with our own desires for self-improvement. If we want to use this time to become master bakers, or perfect painters, or marathon runners, that’s fine, but there’s a better than good chance we’re just going to disappoint ourselves.

Wendell Berry’s alternative, and an alternative from the gospel is to think little. Instead of waiting for the world to change, we can make small changes in our own lives. We can absolutely start and try new things, but keeping our goals in check will help us in these challenging times rather than shaming us into not accomplishing what we wanted.

In 1 Peter there’s this great line about how, through Jesus, we’ve come to trust in God. I love that because it’s not about trusting in ourselves or in other people. For, more often than not, we are masters of disappointment. But God? God remains steadfast no matter the circumstances; Jesus’ is still raised from the dead whether we can worship together in church, or we can run a marathon, or we can bake the perfect loaf of bread.

This is a strange time we find ourselves in. We can do things now we’ve never done before. But it’s also a pandemic. It’s okay if we don’t do anything at all. We can watch Netflix until our eyes hurt. We can go all the way to the end of the bag of Cheetos. We can wear pajamas all day long. The gospel has set us free from the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world has placed on us.

The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t much at all. Because in the end, the rest is up to God. 

Different

1 Samuel 16.1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is known for books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, and other quotes quotes like, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And yet, for a pastor to love the writing of Vonnegut is saying something, considering the fact that he was an outspoken agnostic humanist.

Or to put it a little more concretely, another one of his more famous quotes is: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

I hope the joke was on Vonnegut though, and that he’s now rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, lapping up the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.

vonnegut

Anyway. When I was younger, I came across another quote of Vonnegut’s that, for obvious reasons, has really stuck with me: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.

To me, this quote resonates right now particularly since we can’t actually go to church with the threat of the Coronavirus looming over public gatherings. The church is a people who gather together who cannot gather together right now. And still, the sentiment of the quote rings out whether we are meeting in-person or not. People don’t come to church to hear a preacher ramble on about a particular Biblical text, or offer up droning announcements, or even to say the prayers that they could say on their own whenever they want. 

People come to church because they want to discover something about the Lord.

At times, this hoped-for-discovery is concrete – in the midst of uncertainty, people look for solid ground – in the midst of a diagnosis, people look for hope – in the midst of sorrow, people look to the Lord who will hold them when it feels like they can’t hold it together.

But at other times, it’s a little different.

Whether we would be able to articulate it or not, many of us gather as the people called church with one question on our minds: “What is God like?”

And, scripture does not disappoint.

This is, perhaps, why so many people flock to Jesus’ parables; they are all attempts at encapsulating the character of God in a story, such that upon hearing it we might catch a glimpse at the answer to our question.

david-and-goliath

In today’s passage, the choosing and anointing of David, we encounter the Lord who cares more about one’s heart than one’s outward appearance. If any line from this scripture is known by Christians it is that one. That particular line was even reappropriated famously by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

God, strangely and rather bizarrely, chooses David as the next King of Israel. To bask in the audacity of such a call is difficult for us, because we know what will happen to this shepherd boy. We can’t hear about his calling without already conjuring up the defeat of Goliath, the dancing before the Ark, and the domination of the territories that would result in the power of Israel.

And, more often that not, when we hear this story (if we hear this story at all), the boys of Jesse are paraded before the prophet Samuel and it’s all about David, and why David was selected, and how he would become King.

But this isn’t a story about David.

It’s a story about God.

A God who see more than we could possibly ever see.

A God who delights in making something of our nothing.

A God who delights in choosing the people we wouldn’t, to change the world.

So, why are you tuning in to this livestream? Or, why are you listening to it later? Are you here to hear my preachments? Or are you here because you want to hear something about the Lord?

God still speaks all the time. God speaks to us through Word and through Sacrament. God is made manifest in the means of grace and the hope of glory. God is there in the waters of baptism, with us in the bread and the cup, and with us in our each and every breath.

But God is not like how we so often think.

I mean, imagine God in your minds for a moment… What do you see? Is it an old man with a long flowing beard resting on some puffy clouds? 

That’s Hallmark, not the Bible.

God is, for lack of a better word, different. 

God is foolish, according to the ways of the world, because God sees something in David, something that no one else could see, not even Samuel.

And that’s because God is different.

God-is-God

God is like someone stuck in between being a teenager and being a full adult. For those of us in the throws of adulthood, I know this can sound a little off-putting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. God seems to make a whole bunch of mistakes, always trying out the wrong people for the wrong job, always seeing the world through a too glass-half-full attitude.

And yet we love to make God into our own image all the time, whether it’s in our art or in our words or in our preachments or prayers. Albert Schweitzer once said that every time we go looking for God, it’s like we’re peering down deep into the bottom of a well, and though we think we see something down there, what we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves. 

But if you are brave enough to jump down into the well, down into the strange new world of the Bible, you will find a God who rebukes our desires to make God into our own image.

God is God, and we are not.

Think about it, God is like someone stuck in this never-ending youthful time of idealism even though everything in the world is screaming the contrary. 

Who would be the best person to put in charge of the budding nation Israel? Surely a major modern general, or a lifelong diplomatic politician? “No,” God says, “I want that ruddy boy out wandering around with the sheep. The one who keeps whistling without a care in the world. I want the one who will throw it all away because of a rooftop peeping session. I want the one no one else wants.”

Are we sure we can even trust God?

On Pentecost, the beginning of this strange thing we call church, someone had too much to drink according to some people on the street. Furniture was tossed all around in the upper room, and there was the distinct smell of something burning wafting around in the air. People could barely understand this ragtag group of individuals who tumbled out into the busy streets with nothing to proclaim but the Good News of a free ticket of grace.

That was God’s idea of a good time.

One of the best stories Jesus ever told, a story squarely about God, is about two boys who were terrible to their father. The younger tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance and the older one resents his father for not throwing him a party even though he lived in his Dad’s basement. And the father, in the end, pulls out all the stops and throws the party to end all parties for the younger wayward son, and begs the older one to just relax and have a good time.

It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ stories end with parties, often filled to the brim with the lame, maimed, and blind, people with whom many of us wouldn’t be caught dead.

God is all over the place, frenetic in disposition, and often rambling on about new ideas and is constantly inviting us to join the ride. Frankly, God invites everyone to jump on the crazy train that is careening out of the station toward a destination only God knows where. 

And on this trip, God notices all the things that we’ve stopped noticing – blind beggars, and widow’s coins, and children willing to share their lunch. God screams for attention and keeps pointing out the mistakes of the pompous, the self-righteousness of the wealth, and the injustice of the powerful and the elite. 

God even has the gall to proclaim that only kids get in to the kingdom, and that its virtually impossible for a rich person to get in. And, to make it even more confounding, God rounds that one out with the whole, “But nothing is impossible for God.”

I wonder why no one took the time to explain to God how the world really works. Surely, a disciple or a prophet or even a stranger could have informed the Lord how to behave properly and stay in line. Or, at the very least, God should’ve taken a good hard look in the mirror and decided to shape up.

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But no. God just keeps bumbling around hanging out with the disreputable types, spending the morning with the sick and those of ill repute, lunch with the tax collectors, and then late night snacks with the questioning religious authorities. 

God shows up with friends at a party uninvited, encourages everyone to drink the good wine, and then rubs hands together until the wine overflows, only to move on to the next venue where God is similarly uninvited.

And, because God behaves this way, people will often approach the Lord at these parties, words will be said, voices raised, and even faces smacked. But does God ever raise God’s voice, does God bring the smack down on those who lean toward violence? In short, does God act the way we would act?

Never.

God is like someone who wants to know us better and has plenty of opinions for how we should be living our lives. In fact, God wants to know us better than we want to know God. God never stops inviting us to the party and even though we reject the offer more often than not, the offer always stands.

Some of us have even said, “No,” to God as politely or as emphatically as we know how, and God keeps calling us the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

God is intense, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, and a little too honest. God is always pushing the envelope, testing the boundaries of what we might call “proper behavior.” God is the one who sees a vision of the world that even on our best days we could never properly imagine.

And we wonder, why can’t God just calm down about all this stuff? If God really wants to be the God of all people, wouldn’t it be better it God toed the line and stayed unbiased about the comings and goings of the world? When will God relax and start acting like the God we want?

But, again, the story of scripture is not a story about us. It’s about God. 

The Lord saw David’s heart and choose him, even though David would mess it all up in the future. We would hope that God would make better choices than picking a murderous adulterer to be the king of the nation, but then again, God chose to dwell among us and to redeem us and to save us.

And, though it pains us to admit, even though God came to usher in a new vision of the world, even though God came to set us free from our bonds to sin and death, something about God’s attitude and disposition made us want him dead. 

God is different. But that’s what makes the Good News good. Amen. 

The Grammar of Faith

Genesis 12.1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy. 

Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.

It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.

These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house. 

They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world. 

They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.

But what about the other Christians? 

What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?

To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.

Which, of course, is absurd. 

But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.

We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble. 

And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.

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Every verse in the Bible is important.

That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.

Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…

That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.

Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.

The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.

Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).

How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.

And it comes down to grammar. 

Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize

God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.

The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.

But we don’t like this. 

Not one bit. 

So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.

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I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night. 

She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.

I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.

It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.

We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.

And that is exhausting.

For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him. 

But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren. 

That’s it.

And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.

God chooses nobodies to bless the world.

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I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.

Or someone like you. 

And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.

God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.

If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.

We can’t even keep our promises.

But God does. 

Always.

That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.

Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.

But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.

It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.

He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.

He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.

That only led to more of the same in his life.

Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.

An invitation that felt like an invasion. 

“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”

There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary. 

He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this: 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.

That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own. 

Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.

Good Times, Bad Times

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! 

I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.

But today it will be different.

This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.

To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.

What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.

Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.

And that’s okay.

After all, who can know the mind of God?

Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.

Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse. 

One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.

And what do they share with one another? 

Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.

The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.

A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.

A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.

I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.

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And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster. 

It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.

And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?

These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.

There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.

But, of course, we must speak.

We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening. 

It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say. 

Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.

There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.

There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.

There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.

Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.

These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

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To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.

And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.

For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.

And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.

Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.

Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most. 

There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor. 

But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments. 

It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.

And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.

This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph. 

God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.

Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.

Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.

I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.

Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Those words accomplish nothing.

Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.

If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.

God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.

Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.

Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable. 

But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen.