Too True To Be Good

1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not be raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ — whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

He boarded the plane, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs during the flight. He was a pastor and a professor of theology and he knew better than to tell people, on a plane, what he did for a living.

He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at his average sized seat, and squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.

The preacher stuffed another small bag under his seat, and closed his eyes.

“Is that a Bible?” His seat mate intoned.

The preacher looked down and saw the spine of the Good Book sticking out for all eyes to see.

“What are you, a preacher?”

“Something like that” he responded while crossing his arms and closing his eyes, again.

“Well, I’m not a believer” the man said.

“That’s fine,” the preacher said without opening his eyes, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference what you do, or don’t believe. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The preacher thought that would keep his seat mate quiet for the remained of the flight. But he was wrong. Even though he sat there with his eyes clothes and arms crossed, the man started talking, and he didn’t stop.

First it was just the usual flying-next-to-a-stranger chit chat but eventually it turned serious, and the preacher’s seat partner started talking about Vietnam.

That’s when he opened his eyes and really listened.

The man went on and one, talked the entire flight, describing all the terrible things he did and how, went he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about what he was told to do. 

Eventually, the man said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What you mean ‘confessed’? I ain’t confessing!”

“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to had over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

And suddenly, he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plane, and said, “But I already told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt, and stood up over the man and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what’s inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one person to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign lit up and dinged for the whole cabin to hear, and a steward came over and asked the preacher to sit down. However, he ignored it, and placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”

“But you can’t do that,” the man whispered, while his eyes watered up.

“Oh yes I can, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for all the other passengers to hear it, and the man became a puddle of tears and he wept over himself like a child.

The rest of the plane was silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.

When the plan finally landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the good news. So the preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.

He said, “If what you said is true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I can believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed too, and said, “It takes a miracle for all of us. It’s too true to be good. That’s why we call it the Gospel.”

That’s a true story and I love it. I love it because its so good and true.

Notice, the preacher didn’t sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the sadness with talk of duty or responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead, he offered absolution.

He, to use the language of Paul, took the man out of his sins.

It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 

Paul is worried about his friends in the faith, his Corinthian Christians – that’s what the whole letter is about. They’re drifting away from the path of the truth and the life and the way that Paul first shared with them.

He catches wind that they are no longer sharing the eucharist together, so he writes about the body of Christ having many members.

He learns that they are fighting constantly over who is the best and who is the worst, so he writes about Christ alone being the head of the body.

And here, in chapter 15, he gets to the heart of the matter – the resurrection of the dead.

Paul, if you can’t tell, is spitting logic through the pages of his epistle – “This is it you Corinthian Christians! It’s this or nothing! Everything, and I mean everything, depends on the truth of the One who is truth incarnate.”

He writes first of the story that he shared with them – Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.

It’s an announcement about things that happened – not a collection of generic religious principles, not a list of things to do or not to do.

The heart of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So Paul doesn’t pull any punches – If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools, and we are still in our sins.

It’s hard for us Christians, today, to hear the radical nature of Paul’s proclamation. We forget that this letter was written, sent, and read by Christians before any of the gospel stories were written down. We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, there’s a good chance that the Gospel would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to Gentiles like us.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been in vain, and Christian preaching is nothing more than wishful delusions and empty gestures.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with our faithless worship all while expecting people to live into a new world order that doesn’t really exist.

If there is no resurrection from the dead, then the only thing we can offer the world is a pious lie that leaves us completely and utterly hopeless.

But, let us remember: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.

And yet, the desire for proof remains. We’re addicted to certainty, us moderns. We want clarity above all else, and we can’t imagine a world outside the binaries of our distinctions.

But what is life if not a mystery?

I can’t prove the resurrection. No one can.

Believe this, believe that, we say in the church. And somehow the genuine character of one’s belief has become the litmus test for Christianity. Which is made all the more strange when we consider the amount of doubt right smack dab in the Bible!

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “What a lost people we must be to think that God really cares whether we believe in Him or not.”

You see, one of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not continent on our belief. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still Lord.

We can’t prove it; we can only trust it – we can only point to it, and to the results of it around us.

Consider – Mark’s gospel tells us that, on Easter, the women fled from the tomb and told nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

But they told somebody something, otherwise, none of us would be here.

We experience Easter even now, all these years later. Some of us rejoice in the Good News, and some of us are terrified by it. And yet, Easter is why we are here. We’re here because, one way or another, we have heard the call of the Risen Christ, even when we may not have known that was what we heard.

Maybe some of us are here because we’re looking for proofs. I say look around, and you will begin to see it.

The women who went to the tomb that Easter morning were looking for and expecting a dead Jesus. And the angel says, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead. He ain’t here! He’s in Galilee. Go!”

When Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross, when he drew all things unto himself, he took all of our sins, past, present, future, he nailed them to the cross and left them there forever.

Therefore we are no longer in our sins, they do not define who we are, we have been set free forever and ever.

In church speak we call that absolution. 

It is the proclamation of the promise that Christ made to us through his death and resurrection. 

It is the declaration that even though Paul has a lot to say about sin, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – namely all of the them. 

It is the conviction that Christ will keep coming back to us, banging us over the head if necessary with the only thing we really need – forgiveness. 

God so loved the world that God got down from the throne and condescended to our miserable existence to reduce us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.

God so loved the world that God broke forth from the tomb and left behind the chains of death so that death will never be the final word.

God so loved the world that God died and lived again in order that we might do the same and no longer live lives defined by our sins.

The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their encounter with the Holy One of Israel. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow, or the next day, or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you trust it.”

The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. And later, when asked why he kept answered the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

It’s too true to be good. It’s Gospel. Amen.  

The End Has No End

Ezekiel 37.1-6

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Luke 23.32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And wended have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

The first church I served after seminary had a preschool and I made it a point to be at the doors every morning welcoming the children, and their parents, to the building. I would teach a “chapel time” lessons once a week in the sanctuary, helping to convey stories from the Bible to a group of kids, many of whom had never heard of the Bible in the first place.

It was awesome.

It’s awesome teaching kids about scripture because they enter into the strange new world of the Bible with wonder and delight. They ask all the questions that adults are too afraid to ask, and they rest in the bewildering rather than dismissing it away.

Over the years I served that church I got to know a lot of those preschool families and would run into people all over the community. There’s nothing quite like walking down the aisle in a grocery store and hearing a 4 year old scream, “Pastor Taylor! What are you doing here?”

As if I wasn’t allowed out of the church or something.

Anyway. One morning, while I stood by the doors to the preschool, one of the moms approached me with mascara streaming down her face and her daughter completely oblivious.

The mom ushered the girl into the school and then asked if we had a moment to talk. We retreated into the reading room outside of earshot from everyone else and she said, “My husband died yesterday, and I don’t know how to tell our daughter. Will you tell her for me?”

Death is the one thing that guaranteed for each of us, and it also happens to be the one thing most of us deny all the time. It’s why all the ads we come across online, or the commercials we watch on tv, are all designed at selling us the idea that we get to stick around forever. 

Take this pill and you’ll lose the weight you never really meant to gain.

Wear these clothes and you’ll appear like you did in high school.

Go to this vacation destination and you can look like the models in these images enjoying their time on the beach.

But the heart of the matter is this: The bell will toll for us all. We know not when, only that it will happen. 

Some of us get to live good long lives. Some of us don’t. Some of us make it to the end of our days with no regrets. Some of us won’t. 

When we’re dead, we’re dead.

Which is why the language of death and dying is so important, whether you’re talking to a preschooler or not.

We say things like, “so and so passed away.”

What does that mean? Where did they pass to? What does that mean about their body? 

We say things like, “God just wanted another angel in heaven.”

Which makes God into a monster and the author of all suffering in the world.

After the mother retreated to her car, I walked into the sanctuary and prayed for a good long while before I went back into the preschool. I waited until they went out onto the playground and I called the little girl over to talk.

I said, “Your mom and I talked this morning and,”

“My daddy died” she interrupted.

“Yeah… but she told me you didn’t know…”

“He was sick, and he told me he was going to die. And now he’s dead.”

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“I’m sad, I think. But it’s okay. Daddy told me that when he died he was going to be with Jesus, the guy you talk about all the time. So, it’s okay. But I am sad.”

Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images and stories. Most of us, however, are literalists. We want clarity above all else. But that doesn’t stop us from consuming all sorts of media designed to keep us guessing. Because for as much as we might we addicted to certainty, the world, and the kingdom of heaven for that matter, run on mystery.

What happens in the end? The strange new world of the Bible has all sorts of answers about life after death, some of which we will explore shortly, but let me tell you this: that little preschool girl proclaimed the one thing we can say with certainty about death. When we die, we are with Jesus.

Everything else is a mystery. 

And yet, if we’re asked to imagine what heaven is like, we will conjure in our minds all sorts of ideas and images that, frankly, come from Hallmark more than they come from scripture. 

St. Peter hanging by the pearly gates discerning who makes it in or not is the center point of a good many jokes, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.

Gobs of folks clothed in robes relaxing on puffy clouds might show up in movies and television shows, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.

Among the many images for the kingdom of heaven in scripture, one of the most predominant is that heaven will be like a never ending worship service. Which, to some people, probably sounds more like hell than it does heaven.

So other than being with Jesus at the end, what else can we say about it?

What’s at stake in our two scriptures today is that the resurrection of the dead is precisely that, the bodily resurrection, the reconstitution of our bodies after our deaths. And that our experience of it will be immediate – hence Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: today you will be with me in Paradise.

Our bodies are good gifts given to us by God and they aren’t just vessels for our souls during earthly life. This proclamation is important for the ways we experience our bodies here and now and how we treat others. 

Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one.

It’s why we baptize with water and we break bread and share from the cup.

When scripture talks about the new heaven and the new earth, they are not replacements for the old ones. We are not beamed away from here to go somewhere else. The strange new world of the Bible says that, in the eschaton, God transfigures what we have and what we are. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken. God doesn’t look at us and all we’ve done and say, “meh, it wasn’t good enough.” Instead God will take the created order, all of it, and raise it in glory.

And for us, in our deaths, we go to be with the Lord. Our dead bodies will be cremated or buried in the ground, but our experience of it is such that, when the bell tolls, we arise. 

There’s no waiting room for the kingdom of heaven with an endless supply of People magazines from the 1990’s. We don’t pull off a tab and wait for our turn like we do at the DMV. 

Today, Jesus says, today you will be with me in paradise.

Robert Farrar Capon used to tell this story about how, for years, his local fire house would run the siren at exactly five minutes to 5 pm every Friday afternoon. For a while he thought it must be part of the weekly test of the system, but it was a rather odd time to do so. And then, one day, it dawned on him – rather than run the risk that the festivity of the weekend be delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the work week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party of the weekend from the top of the fire house, five minutes ahead of schedule.

That, Capon says, is heaven. 

Heaven is the party of the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the dead beats and all the success stories, all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who finally give up on winning, simply waltz over to the judgment seat called the Kingdom of God, with nothing to show for their lives except an eternal invitation from the host of the party that goes on forever.

Heaven is a bash that has happened, that insists on happening, and will happen forever and ever.

And the celebration is so good and so loud and so fun that it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.

Which is why we should take seriously the words we say week after week in the Lord’s Prayer – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s also why the sharing of the Good News is really the most important thing we can ever do. Being a part of the community called church means living into the reality that we have a role to play in making people experience heaven on earth rather than hell. It’s why we sing the songs we sing and pray the prayers we pray. We received the witness and the testimony of the end, which frees us to live fully now in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb.

We can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things right here and right now because the end has no end.

Heaven, in short, is fun.

What is, of course, the question at hand today, but the question of who is just as important. Lots of people, even Christians, think that only good people make it to heaven, whatever heaven may be. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it’s important for us to remember that the only people in heaven are forgiven sinners. You don’t go to hell for being bad, or not being good enough. You go to heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness.

Now, does that mean that we have permission here and now to be bad? If you want to stick you hand in a meat grinder you are free to do so, but the only thing it accomplishes is making your life into one heck of a mess. 

God doesn’t run the universe as a system of punishment or reward.

God has consigned all to disobedience that God might be merciful to all.

In the end, our ends aren’t up to us. That’s reason enough to rejoice because it frees us to freely live here and now. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or teach the teachable, or fix the fixable. Jesus came to raise the dead. 

That’s not just great news, its Good News. Amen. 

There’s No Place Like Home

Luke 4.24

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Most preachers have a good “first sermon story.” 

There’s the tension of having gone from one side of the pulpit to the other, the expectations of all the people in the pews being somewhat responsible for the first time preacher, and the confounding hope that this call is, in fact, real.

I have a friend who was so nervous to prepare and preach his first sermon that he bought a book of “famous sermons” and decided to preach one of them rather than his own.

I have another friend who got up into the pulpit, poured her heart out, and was asked if she would consider being the next pastor of the church she had just preached in right in front of the current preacher!

I was a teenager when I preached for the first time. I felt called by God to the work and when I told my pastor he immediately put me on the schedule to get up in the pulpit. The assigned text was from 1 Corinthians about the body having many members each with their own responsibility. And afterward, I had people tell me again and again, “That’s the best sermon I’ve ever heard!”

Let the reader understand: they all lied. But at least they were kind in their falsehood.

For a long time I’ve thought about the impulse of that congregation to compliment my homiletical efforts despite the fact that it was terrible, and I eventually realized that they loved it not because of what I said, but because I was the one who said what I said.

That is, in me they were seeing themselves – they witnessed God working through one of their own. And they loved it.

And yet, Jesus’ first sermon, and the response from the gathered people, was completely different.

Jesus does all the things any good student of the scriptures would do – he takes the scrolls, reads the text, and sits to teach.

But he doesn’t offer exposition, he doesn’t give the gathered people three ways to be better adherents to the Law, he doesn’t even give them a good joke to cut through the tension of the air.

Instead, Jesus says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing it.”

As in, “The Messiah is here and he is me.”

And the people don’t rush forward to congratulate Jesus on his preaching, they don’t offer him a position as the new rabbi in town. No, they say, “Who the heck does he think he is?”

Jesus applies the prophet’s words to himself; he is the herald who announces a transformation of grace, freedom from sin and suffering, and impossible possibility.

The people, having heard this word, demand a sign. “Prove it, you son of a carpenter!”

Jesus rebukes their desire, noting that “no prophet is accepted in their hometown.” And the sleepy little gathering of the faithful turn into a lynch mob. They march Jesus to the edge of a cliff to end his life, but he mysteriously and miraculously makes his way through the crowd and he leaves.

Jesus is rejected, not for preaching about better behavior, not for strict commands, but because he proclaims the gospel. The gospel is offensive to those who hear it because it runs counter to just about everything else in life – it is everything for nothing, it is the proclamation that we can’t save ourselves but someone can and will, it is the announcement that things are changing for good and we aren’t the ones who are doing the changing.

And we can’t stand it! When God in the flesh comes to us and offers us the greatest gift of all, we chase him to the edge of the cliff and eventually we nail him to the cross. But the Good News is that, three days later, God comes back to us.

The gospel is one of the strangest things around: God does what God does for you and me without us having to do anything in return. But that’s also why we call the Good News good. 

The Operating System Of The New Testament

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the 5th Gospel, visible vindication, marital imagery, Good News For Anxious Christians, judgment as transformation, sentimentality, spiritual gifts, communal confirmations, the atonement, and new wine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Operating System Of The New Testament

The Crisis of Christmas

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. 

In the latter part of his theological career Karl Barth would preach to/for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a number of ways – some were amazed that the brilliant academic would humble himself to do such a thing while others believed that he was wasting his time among those who could no longer be helped.

And more than a few folk joked that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and wind up in jail!

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made it a habit of reading the sermon around this time every year because it continues to blow me away. Karl Barth’s theology disrupted my life in all the best ways and to have the words that he shared with a group of prisoners half a century ago is nothing but grace upon grace.

In other words, the Good News of the gospel reminds us again and again that the real prison of life is found in each of our hearts, and God has offered deliverance to all of us captives.

Below you can find three paragraphs from Barth’s Christmas Eve sermon and as you read them I encourage you to rest in the knowledge that these words are for you.

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord. To you!”

Merry (almost) Christmas

And here are some tunes to put you in a decisively Christmas mood:

Sufjan Stevens – Christmas In The Room

May Erlewine – Anyway

Seabird – Joy To The World

Christmas Clothes

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [C] (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the means of grace, clergy vestments, living the faith, motherhood, praise, worship music, creation imagery, Tolkien and the Ents, the Daily Office, parenting the Lord, Good News, and the Ascension in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christmas Clothes

Church Is Good For You

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. 

A friend of mine from seminary just co-authored a piece in Christianity Today that should drive people in droves to local churches. Even though only 36% of Americans view religion with a “great deal of confidence” (down from 68% in 1975), and even though only 29% of Americans say they go to church every week (down from 43% in 2011), regular corporate worship attendance strongly promotes health and wellness.

The article points out that “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”

Literally: church is good for you.

Now, of course, the point of the Good News isn’t to lower our cholesterol, or to add years to our lives, but there is something about the gathering of people for worship that makes things better for people. 

The psalmist writes, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” When we gather in worship together, we enter the strange new world of the Bible only to discover that it is, in fact, our world and that God delights in being made known to us in the breaking of bread and the waters of baptism. These sacraments are the activities that make our lives intelligible in which we are told/reminded that we belong to God and that despite our best (and worst) efforts we are a people who live in the light of forgiveness.

Which is all just another way of saying: when the Good News actually sounds like good news then it can make all the difference in the world.

To be clear: just showing up Sunday after Sunday won’t make us happy; it’s not some magic flourish of the wrist that makes all the bad things go away. But, at the same time, being part of a community of faith means that we’ve been incorporated into something such that, when the bad things happen, we know we will not face them alone. 

I had the opportunity last year to lead a short online class with the theologian Phillip Cary and I asked him during the final session to make the case for why people should go to church. He said, “People should go to church because it is true, it is beautiful, and it makes life better.”

He was right.

And now we have the research to prove it!

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological insights than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to be part of something that makes life better:

The Westerlies are a brass quartet from New York whose sonic ventures would do well in sanctuaries, concert halls, and living rooms. Their music has hints of jazz, chamber music, and even rock and roll. “Robert Henry” is a foray into pulsing trombone rhythms with stylized trumpet syncopation that is sure to get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face.

Mia Gargaret is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Chicago. While she was in the midst of a tour in 2019 she lost her singing voice due to a sickness and retreated to her synthesizer for comfort. She began creating ambient meditations that drew inspiration from philosopher Alan Watts lecture “Overcome Social Anxiety.” Her song “Body” samples the lecture with a synthesized assortment of arpeggios. 

The British band Bombay Bicycle Club released a 16 minute cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” back in May in honor of “World Turtle Day.” The song is nothing short of a sonic journey. I invite you to sit back with some good headphones and enjoy the ride.

(More) Reasons To Join A Church

Psalm 104.24

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 

A friend of mine sent me a post this week in which a pastor in Oregon put together a list of ten reasons to join a church – It is concise, full of salty language, and really gets to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today. I haven’t been able to get his list out of my head precisely because so much of what we do as a church is done simply because it’s what we do. That is, we do the work of church without often thinking about why we do that work. 

Which is all just another way of saying: “Why would we ever bother to invite someone to church if we, ourselves, don’t really know why we go in the first place?”

So, while caught up in this theological and ecclesiological framework, I decided to put together my own list of ten reasons to consider joining a church. (Feel free to use the list as you see fit)

  1. The church is a place of profound vulnerability in which rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep isn’t a slogan – it is a practice.
  2. The church is the proclamation that the powers and principalities of this world do not have the final word about who we are and whose we are.
  3. The church is a new time through which our lives are structured around the movements of the Spirit rather than the exhausting rat race of life. 
  4. The church is an opportunity to have our finances and our gifts shifted to support people whom we might otherwise ignore even though they are our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
  5. The church is gathering in which all of our unique identities/gifts/graces can be used for the betterment of creation rather than its destruction.
  6. The church is the last vestige of a place where we willfully gather together with people who don’t think like us, look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc. and is therefore a remarkable opportunity for real community.
  7. The church is a gift of a new past in which our mistakes are healed through what we call forgiveness.
  8. The church is a gift of a new future in which the fear of death is destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
  9. The church is a gift of a new present, a way of life, made possible by Easter in which our practices/habits/liturgies shape us into an alternative society.
  10. The church is a never-ending source of Good News for a world that is drowning in bad news. 

The Insanity of the Gospel

Mark 3.20-35

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

This is a difficult passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.

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

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

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

No. They said he was out of his mind. 

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

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

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

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

And perhaps they had a point. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there! 

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

You can only win by losing.

You can only receive by giving.

You can only live by dying.

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

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

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

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

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

And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could there be any better news than that?

But wait, there’s more!

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

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

But what about for God?

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

Including us!

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

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

And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.

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

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

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

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

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

The Main Thing

John 10.11-18

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will life to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

I was on vacation with my extended family and decided that, as a pastor, I should still probably go to church on Sunday morning. I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches,” picked the one with the least bad website, and announced my intention to the family. When Sunday morning arrived, the only takers I had for church were my sister, my son, and myself.

So we loaded into the car and left everyone to sleep in on Sunday morning as we prepared to worship the Lord in glory and splendor.

The church was beautiful, situated right in the middle of town (a town that will remain unnamed for reasons soon to be proclaimed), and when we pulled into the parking lot we were immediately greeted by a cheerful older couple dressed in their Sunday best.

Our little trio ascended the stairs leading into the sanctuary and were immediately bombarded by two things: an oppressive wave of heat wafting from the chancel area, and a slew of congregants who could sense fresh blood in the water.

Regarding the former: the AC had apparently died and the design of the sanctuary trapped  the summer heat inside and we were to be treated to a sauna-like atmosphere for the service.

Regarding the latter: I couldn’t blame the church folk. Here we were looking like a new little family in town and they were all so happy to see people they’d never seen before.

And in that briefest of moments I had a choice. Well, I had a few. I could’ve grabbed my son and sister and made for the nearest exit so that we could find a church that had their air conditioning running. But seeing as I am a pastor, I felt that a tad impolite. Which brings me to the main choice I had: To share, or not to share, my vocation.

There’s something that happens when a pastor attends another church – people become, as my grandmother says, beside themselves. They want to pull out all the stops, and find you the best pew in the house, and they want to be their very best.

Why?

I’m not sure.

It’s not as if, as a pastor, I would ever come back on another Sunday. I have a job that requires me to be in a particular place at a particular time nearly every Sunday of my adult life.

Nevertheless, I had to choose. And, seeing as I was on vacation, I decided to truly rest, and allow the congregation to rest, and when the first person stepped forward to shake my hand, he sure enough asked what I did for a living. I opened my mouth to say something about being a librarian, or construction worker, or being a mid-tier manager at a sufficiently boring data company when my son, all of three years old at the time, stepped right in front of me and yelled, “I’m Elijah and this is my dad. He’s a pastor!”

And so it began.

15 minutes later, having received a tour that included a forgotten church library, three sets of bathrooms, and a hallway filled with more pamphlets than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time, I found myself sitting in what I was assured to be the best pew in the sanctuary, next to my sister and son and the three of us were completely drenched in sweat.

We stood for the appropriate hymns, we bowed for the requisite prayers, and finally we sat back for the sermon.

I love listening to other people preach. It is so much of what I do after all, and I don’t get to hear a lot of preaching, so I settled in to hear what God had to say through this particular preacher.

The text was John 10 – I am the good shepherd.

The preacher wax eloquently about John’s gospel in general, and the importance of the various I am statements (I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth, and the life). The preacher made various allusions to Exodus 3 when Moses encountered God as the burning bush who declared I Am Who I Am.

It was all well and good, until it wasn’t.

The preacher was wrapping up the homiletical insights and ended with this: “Jesus is the good shepherd who watches out for the sheep. All of you out there are the sheep. You don’t know what to do and what not to do which is why you need Jesus. But I am neither shepherd nor sheep. I, as the pastor, am the sheep dog. Now I know that John doesn’t mentioned the sheep dog but I’m sure that he just forgot to write that part down. As the sheep dog my primary responsibility is to keep all of you in line. I will nip at your legs to make sure you know what you can and can’t do, where you can and you can’t go. So let me do my job.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen?

The church universal has traditionally observed this, the 4th Sunday of Easter, as Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the lectionary cycle, four different texts assigned for each Sunday, today is all about shepherds and sheep from both the Old and New Testaments.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the perfect “life after Easter” message – Jesus returns to us, Jesus finds us, and Jesus will never let us go.

We are given an assurance from the Good Shepherd, just on the other side of rejection and resurrection, that we are loved, that we are cared for, that we matter not based on what we do or do not do, but on what Jesus does for us. 

Which, to be clear, is rather counter to what I heard on vacation.

Consider the sheep: The sheep cannot do much of anything for themselves or their situations. The only thing sheep can do, really, is follow. And even that can be a trying endeavor. And when a sheep is lost, it is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep. The only hope a lost sheep has is being found by the shepherd.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, tell us exactly what he will do, how far he will go, to save a bunch of dumb sheep who can’t do anything for themselves. 

Jesus, to put it simply, does it all.

Jesus gets all the good verbs in scripture and yet, in Christian preaching, he often feels like an after-thought. But Jesus, even here, warns us about that possible proclamation! The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away! Jesus is rebuking religious leaders then, and now, who neglect the people of God. 

Do you see? Discipleship is all about the admission of our condition – we’re sheep; we are dead in our sins. It is all about coming to grips with the fact that we have no power to save ourselves or to convince anyone that we are worth saving.

Consider – More than 18 million children in the US live in food insecure homes. 

For the first time since the 1960’s life expectancy in the US has gone down. 

And, while people celebrated (or lamented) the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd last year, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a 16 year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant.

I could go on and on.

We truly are sheep without a hope in the world unless we have a shepherd who is willing to do for us that which we cannot do on our own. 

Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get in Christ Jesus.

God in Christ finds us in the desert of death, not in the garden of progress. God meets us right smack dab in the middle of our sins, not in the triumph of our accomplishments. 

The life of faith is predicated on recognizing how lost we are, how our lives really are out of our hands, how if we will ever really live again it will entirely be the gift of some gracious shepherd who delights in putting us on his shoulders and carries us home.

We can call the Good Shepherd a good shepherd because while the hired hands run away at the first sign of danger, or puts all sorts of unhelpful (and unattainable) expectations on us, Jesus remains steadfast. And (!) Jesus does not merely care for the sheep within reach, but also gathers the whole flock together! 

For all of the talk in the church today about inclusion (open hearts, minds, doors), the most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners, which includes each and every single one of us!

And that’s the most important part of whatever this thing is that we call church – its about proclaiming God’s grace imputed to sinners through the work of Jesus Christ. If that’s not the beginning, middle, and end of everything we do, then we’re not really doing anything.

But, instead of making that profound proclamation, we are far more likely to be consumed by sheep dogs nipping at our legs both inside, and outside, the church. We hear it from pastors, politicians, pundits, and everyone in between. Things like: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, thinking globally, don’t drink so much, practice mindfulness, inclusiveness, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, on and on and on.

And, all of things are good and fine, we probably should start doing that stuff – but they are not where we begin. If those things are anything, they are a response to what God has already done. 

A Bishop, from another denomination (thankfully), used to be in charge of recruiting for a seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to lead the church and he would end every single interview the same way, with a role play. He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now, tell me why I should go to church…”

Every single person, throughout the years, would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.” Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. But the Bishop would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.” Then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

He recruited for years and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the musical prodigies. Church may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus.

For the church today, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. We might think the main thing is convincing other people to adopt our positions on social issues. We might think the main thing is making sure that everyone falls asleep at night with a full belly. We might think the main thing is putting on the greatest performance in the world every single Sunday. But those are not the main thing.

The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified. The main thing is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born to dwell among us. The main thing is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who never ever stops tending to the sheep.

Friends, the only thing we’ve got that other group don’t, is Jesus Christ and him crucified, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; for us! 

People can get everything they need, except Jesus, from other places and other people. And they might even be better at that stuff than we are. 

But we’re in the Jesus business. That is: we are here to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all that we’ve wronged, that we are love in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be loved, and that, and the end of all things, we know how the story ends because we know Jesus Christ. Amen.