How Can We Know The Way?

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.

During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.

Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.

It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing. 

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen

John 12.32

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.

But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.

Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”

Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith. 

For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.

We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.

God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting. 

Nine members of the church were killed.

The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.

He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”

So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.

A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”

So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.

There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.

And we wept.

And then we prayed some more.

How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today. 

Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.

So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.

We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices. 

And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church. 

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.

This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.

What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.

Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may.

And perhaps we must. Amen. 

All The Good Verbs!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [C] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas presents, strangers in a strange land, experiential faith, scattering and gathering, strange celebration, new words, Frozone and Frozen, the mystery of salvation, Indiana Jones, universalism, and the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All The Good Verbs!

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

The Playlist of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 1.4-20 1 Samuel 2.1-10, Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including door stoppers, double dipping, the importance of names, John Behr, the theology of death, singing the faith, prophetic calls, the “S” word, Good News, blessed assurance, Little Red Riding Hood, and apocalyptic language. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Playlist of Faith

The Death of Death

Revelation 21.1-6a

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

What frightens you more – the hospital or the cemetery?

We have an aversion to death in our culture. We take pills that promise to make us look, or feel, younger even though they don’t. We listen to doctors tell us about our need to reduce sodium or sugar but then we find ourselves coming out of the Drive Thru lane with a super sized soda and a mountain of French fries. We read the numbers and the statistics of those who die, but we assume that the same fate can’t, or won’t, befall us.

When death rears its ugly head, we do everything we can to run in the opposite direction. 

I meet with families to prepare a service of death and resurrection and I am told that they don’t children present for fear of frightening them about the finality of death. In the days before COVID, I would visit people in the hospital who told me how bad they wished others would come and sit with them, but they understood the reluctance – no one wants to get too close to the truth.

When I was in seminary, we were required to tour a funeral home in order to learn everything that happens to dead bodies from arrival until burial or cremation. We were escorted through the embalming process, shown the vast array of color coordinated coffins, and we were even shown the inner workings of the crematory which had to get hot enough to turn bones into ash.

And then, shortly before it was all over, we were shown the viewing room in which a recently dead woman lay in her coffin, ready to receive her friends and family that evening. We paid our respects, but more than a few of my peers stood frozen in their tracks – it was the first dead body many of them had ever seen, and it shocked them so much they couldn’t move.

Death has an ugly color. I have seen it more times than I can count. Rare are the calls to a pastor when something has gone well. I’m the one they call when death shows up. 

Why are we talking about such things today in church? Why are we talking about death?

Well, for one thing, today is Halloween. What better day could there be to talk of death? Tonight, scores of children will dress as super heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defenders of peace and justice from the Galactic Empire, and even extinct creatures that used to roam the earth. And, of course, there will be some who dress as more frightening figures, those who straddle the thin line between life and death.

Halloween forces us to confront death in an odd way – through children. I’ve come to rejoice in this strangest of holidays not only because I already get to dress up in somewhat of a costume every week in church, and not only because I have an unhealthy appetite for KitKats, but because it is a necessary opportunity for all of us to come close to an inconvenient truth – no one makes it out of this life alive.

And yet, this year, I’m not sure how badly we need the reminder… Every day we are bombarded with the statistics about COVID19 and its disregard for our pretensions, we are met with masks on the young and old alike making it impossible to deny the gravity of our situation. Even with the vaccine on the imminent horizon for 5-12 year olds, death keeps rearing it ugly head.

Church, oddly enough, is one of the few places where, even though the rest of the world actively engages in the denial of death, we stare into it week after week.

We put up crosses, we sing songs about those who from their labors rest, we even occasionally feast on the Lord. We are compelled to face the truth that we would rather avoid. 

Death is ugly. 

And it is here, squarely staring death in the face, do we dare to proclaim the Gospel of God:

There is a new heaven, and a new earth! A loud voice shouts from the throne, “See, the home of God is among the people! God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more! Mourning and crying and pain will be gone!” And the one seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new!”

Do you have goosebumps?

Did you hear the Good News?

In the end, death is no contest for the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Death is defeated by the King of kings who comes to die in our place. The death of death is made possible by the One who broke forth from the tomb in resurrection.

Revelation is a wild ride, one worthy of Halloween worship. The whole book contains these fantastical images and scenes that go beyond our ability to comprehend. They point to God’s cosmic victory over the cosmos. The vision granted to John boldly proclaims that no amount of pain, no number of graveyards, no heap of hospital hallways have the final word.

Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth – they might even derail everything we think we know to be true – but they are not the truth.

There’s a reason that this text, this vision, has been associated with Christian burials since the very beginning. There’s a reason that we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children. 

They are words of hope for a people who feel no hope in the world. Whether it was the earliest Christians suffering under the weight of the Roman Empire, or someone who just said their final goodbye, these words mean something.

These are the words that guide, shape, and nurture the saints.

Today, in addition to Halloween, is when we celebrate All Saints. We read and remember the names of those who have died in the last year. It is a somber and holy moment in which we pause to reflect on how God worked in and through those now dead. It is an opportunity to imagine what God might even be up to with us.

And the “all” in “All Saints” is important. Lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that saints are only those perfect Christians – Saints are just sinners in the hands of a loving God. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, it is merely the admission that we are not yet what we can be. It’s about coming to grips with the condition of our condition all while holding fast to the wonderful Good News that Jesus does his best work with people like us – Jesus deals in the realm of impossible possibility – Jesus is in the resurrection business.

John sees the New Heaven and the New Earth and notice, they are not replacements for the old ones. In our deaths we are not beamed away to some distant realm of existence. God does not reject the created order. The New Heaven and the New Earth are transfigurations of what we have right now – they are the created order raised and glorified.

Which means that wherever we find brokenness today – in our lives, in our families, in our institutions, God is actively working to rectify those wrongs right now. God calls us, even us, to live into the reality of all things being made new.

Do you see? What John sees has already happened, it is happening, and it will happen.

God made all things new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes all things new whenever one of us is in Christ (there is a new creation), and God will make all things new in the Eschaton.

All Saints, what we do today, allows us to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with the saints in our midst now, and strangely enough with the saints who will arrive long after we’re gone. 

We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, past, present, and future.

The church is a peculiar thing – we move forward by looking back and we live now because of death. We are what we are because of what we’ve inherited, but we are also who we are because, in baptism, we’ve died with Christ in order that we might live, truly live.

There is, of course, a lingering question – How can we know this to be true?

None of us know the writers of the scriptures, we don’t know the authors of the hymns and songs we’re singing today, we don’t even know the names of the people who adorn our windows in this sanctuary.

We, I, can’t prove any of this. The resurrection of the dead, the communion of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses, is not that kind of knowledge. It is a gift of faith, of trust.

I know it to be true because my grandmother told me its true. I know it to be true because I’ve had countless individuals, saints, who lived lives according to that truth, people who showed me the way. I trust the witnesses, because that’s what we all are, in the end. We testify and listen to those who testify to the truth. 

On this spookiest of holidays, as we prepare to look death squarely in its face, as we take time to give thanks for the saints, we do so in the light of this news, this truth:

Descending from the realm of light and life, invading the horrid darkness of the kingdom of Death and destroying it forever, comes One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. To us he speaks the enduring words of the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and I am life, whoever trusts in me shall live.” He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Believing Is Seeing

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. My time in seminary would start the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on my theological journey.

So, like any good millennial, I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches” and I decided to try out the one with the least bad website.

I meandered through the open front doors and stood awkwardly in the narthex.

It was empty.

No ushers. No greeters. No nothing.

So I walked into the sanctuary, hoping against hope that the website had been accurate in terms of the church’s worship time, because there wasn’t a soul in the sanctuary.

I paced around for a minute or two contemplating the strangeness of the situation, when a I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and discovered a rather old and disheveled looking man who blurted out, “You must be new. We’re having worship in the fellowship hall. Follow me.”

And so I did.

We navigated a few frightening corridors, all while passing long-forgotten Sunday school rooms, until we entered the dimly lit fellowship hall. Folding chairs were arranged in a haphazard semi-circle, a leaning piano rested in the corner, and there was a make-shift plastic folding table altar next to a podium. 

As I crossed the threshold to the space for holy worship, the preacher encouraged the couple dozen present to rise for the opening hymn:

Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King.

Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee.

Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.

Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.

Then we settled in for worship. We prayed. We listened. We heard a sermon about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to God what God first gave to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we keep worshipping in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

After the benediction was shared, we were invited to the other side of the room where lemonade and cookies were waiting to be consumed. The preacher promptly pull me aside, introduced himself, and apologized saying, “I’m sorry you had to hear all of that on your very first Sunday. I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.”

I made some sort of comment that attempted to soothe his worries, when the little old man who led me to the sanctuary came up and said. “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What should we think about this situation in the strange new world of the Bible? Because right here, in one sentence, we have the whole truth about one person, and also the entirety of humanity.

This is what life can do to us.

Life, at times, seems to be everything we intend it to be. We have the right job, the right spouse, the right whatever. And then life happens. Usually, without warning, life comes at us pretty fast and we find ourselves sitting by the roadside of life. A wayward diagnosis, an argument leads to a fight which leads to words that can’t be unsaid, a company folds, on and on.

Blind Bartimaeus sits by the roadside. That’s what they called him – named by what he couldn’t do. The only thing others could see about him was that he couldn’t. Forgotten or, worse, tossed aside. If he disappeared maybe one person would notice, but life would continue on its merry way whether Bartimaeus did or not. 

And the world looks quite different from the roadside. It looks different from the hospital bed, or from behind bars, or from the fear of living paycheck to paycheck. There is nothing that one can do from the roadside but to accept fate and recognize that this is what life will be.

And yet, Bartimaeus, in his blindness, sees the truth of the world. He understands, like others in his position, what we who feel on top of the world miss – life is cruel.

Sometimes we get a taste of it, we visit someone in their distress, we sit in these pews for a funeral, but we do whatever we can to return to the comforts of our lives as soon as we possibly can. We live under the power of denial that life will continue on however we want it to, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

And then, another One comes onto the scene. This is another person who, like Bartimaeus, is about to be pushed by the world to the side of the road, to be thrown out among the dead. He has friends, they follow him, and yet they are fools. They argue about greatness and power and prestige. And, in the end, they will all abandon him.

So what happens between these two figures? 

Bartimaeus is at the very bottom of life, both geographically (Jericho is 900 feet below sea level) and literally. He has no hope in the world. And yet, the hope of the world happens across his path that day.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

The crowds beckon the beggar to shut his mouth. Can’t he see that the Messiah doesn’t have time to waste on him?

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the Lord stands still, and calls upon the blind beggar by the roadside. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks. 

It’s the same question he just asked the thunder brothers. Do you remember what they asked for? “Lord, let us sit by your side in glory, can we have cabinet positions in the kingdom of God?”

And what does Bartimaeus ask for? Mercy!

This blind man, left to the ditches of life, sees more clearly than anyone else. “Lord, let me see again!” “Go, your faith has made you well.” And immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Notice: Jesus heals Bartimaeus, reverses the misfortunes of the world, and orders him home. Go live the life you never had Bartimaeus. 

But he didn’t! Because if Bartimaeus had gone back to a normal life, we surely wouldn’t be here talking about him. After his life is changed, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

Jesus is in the business of transformation – of taking us from where we are, to where we can be. That’s what church is all about. We don’t do all of this just to sing a few songs, and think a few lofty thoughts, and feel a few warm fuzzies only to do it all again next week. We do this because it changes us.

You know, for what it’s worth (pun intended), the Bible speaks about money and possessions more than anything other topic except for love. Which, of course, relates to money and possessions. Where our treasure is, there are hearts are also.

Following Jesus on the way is all about coming to grips with a new reality in which giving of ourselves in the only way we know how to live because that’s exactly what Jesus did, and does, for us.

Our giving, whether it’s our time, our talents, or our tithes, connects with how we, and others, experience little slices of heaven on earth here and now. Or, to use the language of our scripture today, they give us opportunities to have our eyes opened by Jesus to the truth.

In just the last few months alone I have witnessed the transformative ministry of God through this church. We welcomed in gobs of kids for Vacation Bible School and taught them about the virtues of discipleship. We sent our youth on a hometown mission trip in which they truly lived out their faith by loving their literal neighbors. We restarted all of our Sunday school classes and small groups in which, through the powerful work of study, we’ve grown in Christlikeness. We’ve even brought back our different music stylings from the praise band at the early service to the different bell choirs at the traditional service all so that we can retune ourselves to God’s frequencies in the world. 

All of those things are made possible by and because of giving – the giving of talents, times, and, tithes.

Generosity changes us. It changes us in the immediate because our brains release endorphins when we do things for other. And it changes us in the long term because our giving now makes things possible for others later.

We have a church history room down off from Memorial Hall. There’s a remarkable quilt that details the different developments of Methodism, there are pictures of the building throughout the decades, and boxes full of old paperwork. 

This week a woman came by the church because she was baptized here, she was married here, and is now back in town and she wanted a change to remember. So she and I sat together in the history room, we looked over the old attendance records where she was able to find the names of long gone friends and family. It was a remarkable experience.

After she left I went back into the room for a moment and found myself bowled over with emotions. 100 years ago a group of people were so committed to the Good News, despite the world being filled to the brim with bad news, that they decided to start this church. And for one hundred years Christians like us have been gathering again and again to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to it with giving.

People gave their time, talents, and tithes without knowing at all how it would bear fruit, and they did it anyway.

That’s the kind of mission we’re caught up in today. Planting seeds with our time, talents, and tithes so that they might bear fruit in ways we can’t even imagine. Jesus’ great gift makes gift givers of us all. What we do as a church is nothing short of eye-opening endeavors in which we are given opportunity after opportunity to be blessings to other because we have been so blessed. 

We are all Bartimaeus. Life has knocked us down at some point or another. We’ve felt the weight of the world come crashing down upon us. We’ve felt abandoned to frightening fates in the ditches of life.

And Jesus come to us there in the ditch. Meeting us in our sins and in our shortcomings. The great gift giver comes to set us free. He opens our eyes to the truth. 

“Go,” Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What happens next, is up to us. Amen. 

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.

The Adventure of Faith

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave or all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

There was an incident as a prestigious university a number of year ago, perhaps the same one where I went to seminary, during which, one random fall morning, their was a disheveled looking beggar sitting on the steps leading into the Law School.

The sight was quite the juxtaposition on the immaculately manicured campus.

The next week the same beggar, bandaged and certainly in need of help, sat by the doors leading into the School of Medicine.

One week later and the beggar was back again, bruised and bloodied, and this time he was laying down by the entrance to the Divinity School.

By this time, the university decided they had to put an end to these incidents and so they alerted the police to be on the look out for the questionable figure on campus.

However, when they surrounded the beggar a few days later, the beggar began removing his outer clothing and his bandages and his fake beard and produced a Student ID card. He was in the midst of his PhD in Sociology and had been conducting an experiment on campus.

The idea behind his escapades was to discern if people from certain academic disciplines were more or less inclined to helping a stranger in need. After all, he had a pretty decent set of variables to work with, and it didn’t take him long to set up the whole experiment.

Months later, when he published his findings, the campus was in a bit of a shock.

Apparently, while laying out in front of the Law building, countless students offered him money but that was the extent of what they were willing to do.

A fair number of students enrolled in the Medical School offered to examine his injuries or escort him over to the hospital.

And while perched in front of the Divinity School, not a single student nor professor stopped to offer anything. Well, they apparently offered lots of excuses but nothing more.

In fact, the story goes that they only person who stopped in front of the Divinity School was a janitor, who risked losing his job in order to help make sure the beggar was taken care of.

James and John, the brothers Zebedee, are idiots. Jesus teaches them about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Jesus offers them miraculous food to eat when they see nothing but scarcity, Jesus even spells the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can and still, they miss it all. They approach their Lord and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom. 

These fools want power while God in the flesh has told them time and time again that glory comes in weakness.

In short, the brothers Zebedee are out of their league.

And yet, just as Peter blurted out his own non-sequitur desire to build houses up on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, James and John fumble out their desire for greatness.

Perhaps, like us, when these brothers are confronted with seemingly bad news, they prefer to keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.

“Excuse us JC, it’s all good and fine for you to talk about that Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over?”

And JC, like a good rabbi, answers their question with a question.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!”

“Okay,” Jesus intones, “I just want to make sure we’re all clear, then, about what that means. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, pay attention as I say this for the 50th time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to be great, you have to be the least. For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to his his life a random for many. Got it?”

The disciples, James and John and all the rest, they want glory, they want power, they want prestige.

These fools are just like us! Looking for the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance!

But glory, according to the strange new world of the Bible, is not how we so often picture glory. We might imagine the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right college, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.

However, this is how Jesus describes glory: The Son of Man, God in the flesh, serving humanity from the hard wood of cross, rectifying the sins of all those who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons.

At the end of the day it’s important to remember that the Gospel, the Good News, is a story. It’s not a self-help program, it’s not a textbook with steps to salvation, it’s not program for perfect morality. It’s a story, actually the story, that renarrates all of our stories. 

Whenever we enter the strange new world of the Bible, its impossible to miss how the whole thing, particular the New Testament, is organized around a journey. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end that is really a new beginning.

And, like most journeys, we know we have somewhere to go, but we never really know what we will encounter along the way.

The same is true of the disciples, then and now. Disciples follow Jesus, but we clearly don’t know a lot more than that.

Following Jesus, then and now, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we do not know where it will lead and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the entire ride.

What are the marks of faithfulness, or discipleship, today? Do you have to be baptized? Do you have to have perfect worship attendance? Do you have to tithe? 

Notably, Jesus never says to his disciples, “You have to believe these five propositions in order to be a disciples” or “You must engage in this list of Spiritual Disciplines.”

He merely says, “Follow me.”

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence is a betrayal of the magnitude of discipleship.

Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. It’s not about having some sort of emotional response to the Spirit, or making some sort of public proclamation about Jesus’ lordship. Those things can, and dare I say should, happen.

But they are not discipleship. They, to put it bluntly, are not the Good News.

In the end, discipleship is nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the road of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the safe and secure knowledge that he’s in charge.

Therefore, we never really choose to be Christians. 

Discipleship is something done to us.

I’ve never not been a Christian. I’ve spent my whole life in and around and the church and don’t know know anything different. But even those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by making a decision. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually find ourselves within a community like this one.

That something is named Jesus Christ.

It just kind of happens that at some point we realize we’re caught up on the journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty Good News! It’s very Good News because it means the church has room for those with tremendous faith and for those with tremendous doubts. The church has room for those who feel like they’re on top of the world and for those who feel like their down in a ditch. It means the church is a journey, an adventure, in which we are always moving.

And yet, like any journey, there are signposts, guides, billboards that help us know where we are going.

To be on the way of faith, to be caught up in the adventure of grace, means imitating the moves of the master. That is: we learn and live and move and have our being by repetition, by habit, by practice.

That’s why Jesus is forever telling stories. Notice: Jesus stories are not about esoteric conceptions that college freshman debate in Philosophy 101. Jesus’ stories, instead, are centered down in the muck and the mire of life. Jesus tells stories about things like anger, justice, disappointment, fear, money, jealousy, forgiveness, relationships – you know, the things we all deal with on a daily basis. 

Those stories, those words, they become the habits around which our lives are made intelligible. This happens because Jesus’ stories are always about himself, and if we take seriously the claim that we have been incorporated into His body, then they are also stories about us.

Here’s a parable that Will Willimon tells which, of course, riffs on one of Jesus’ parables:

“There’s a barber who, after a day of cutting people’s hair for money, goes out to a hospital for the mentally challenged and cuts hair for free. A friend of his is an accountant who, after a long day of serving people’s financial interests for money, goes out at night to cruise local bars, to pick up women for one night stands, and to enjoy himself as much as possible. Both men, the barber and the accountant, are apprentices, people attached to some larger vision of what life is about, why we are here. One is attached to Jesus. The other is attached to consumerism and selfish hedonism. So the interesting question to ask them is not the abstract ‘What do you believe in?’ But, instead is it the concrete question, ‘Whom are you following?’”

Faith is about following.

Jesus says to the disciples, then and now, “Take up you cross and follow me.” When we respond to that call, it means that Jesus will lead us place, places we might not ever imagine.

Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”

Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then the Lord takes us somewhere else. That journey might look like spending a few hours on a Saturday morning helping with a yard sale in a church fellowship hall. Or it might look like volunteering over with Kid’s Soar helping kids with their education. Or it might look like serving as an usher on Sunday mornings helping to embody the love of God in your interactions with others. 

Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved by mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some joyful part of the journey. What we do in our service, which is but another word for discipleship, whether we’re volunteering with a local organization or helping at church to bring about a new vision of the kingdom, all of those things form us while we are doing them.

Discipleship, then, isn’t something we ever really finish; discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do. Which, in the end, it what makes it so fun. Amen. 

Lift High The Priest

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 38.1-7, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reunions, graphic novels, preconceived notions, agency, majestic clothing, parodic embodiment, political projections, the theology of worship, and John Howard Yoder. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lift High The Priest

Jesus And The Yuppie

Mark 10.17

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation. 

We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).

Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.

But he wants more.

What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.

Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:

“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).

The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.

Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.

And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”

But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.

And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.

Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.

In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves. 

But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.