The Strange American Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Plus Nothing

Psalm 78.17-24

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.

The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved. 

Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.

While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.

While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.

The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.

She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”

“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”

The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”

Another person interjects, “So, what  you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”

And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”

It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.

Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.

Works-Righteousness UMC.

However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.

This is a parable of grace.

And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.

In short, the Psalms tell the truth.

God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.

“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”

Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.

But it ain’t enough for the people of God.

“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”

Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.

Yet.

Yet!

Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.

This is a parable of grace.

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

Another parable of grace. 

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.

Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required). 

But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before. 

There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me. 

Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace. 

Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do. 

It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do. 

We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire. 

The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

Disturbing The Peace

Psalm 69.6-9 

Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel. It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.  

John 2.13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

It was only a few days after the ordeal at the wedding. They had slept off the hangovers, returned to life as normal, but they couldn’t help but feel as if nothing would ever be normal again.

They were guests at the wedding, one of those affairs where they knew someone who knew someone. It didn’t matter, then, that they were sat at the reject table. They knew how to have a good time and how to make the most of the least.

At least they did, until the wine ran out.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being at a wedding party that ran out of booze you’ll have some idea how the tension in the room percolated straight to the surface.

So they sat there, minding their own business, wondering how long they’d have to stay before it was appropriate for them to duck out the side door to see what else Cana had to offer. But then they heard their teacher arguing with his mother.

The discomfort of a dry wedding is one thing, but having to listening to an adult son fight with his mother? That’s another thing entirely.

They tried not to eavesdrop, but it was loud enough for most of the guests to hear. And then, all of the sudden, their guy disappeared into the basement. 

Within 15 minutes the wedding host announced that a miracle had occurred, and they now had enough wine to last them through the night and into the next day. And who were they to turn down an invitation like that from their host?

And so it was, a few days later, on the other side of all the pinot noir and all the partying, they found themselves in Jerusalem.

It was Passover, and all the Jews were making their way to the holy city including the fumbling crew who were still regaling one another with stories about what happened at the wedding.

They arrived at the temple and took in the scene before them. There were groups of people in every direction engaged in the economics of temple worship – some were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, while other exchanged the different currencies to make the system as simple as possible.

It had gone like this for some time.

But then Jesus disappeared again. Though this time he didn’t retreat into a dimly lit basement to turn water into wine, this time he marched straight toward the closest table, grabbed it by the corner, and flipped it high into the air. Coins went flying in every direction as jaws hit the dusty ground.

But he wasn’t done yet. Next he grabbed a leather whip and started chasing after everyone within distance, all while shouting insults about how they ruined his Father’s house.

He ragtag crew of would-be followers stood off to the side and let Jesus do his Jesus thing and they whispered among themselves:

“Is this really such a good idea?”

“If he keeps this up, he’s going to get himself killed.”

And then one of them, maybe Peter, said, “‘Zeal for you house will consume me’ isn’t that what the Psalm says?”

And they all nodded in agreement.

Just then a group of Jews shouted at the mad men with the whip in his hands, “What sign can you show for doing all of this?”

Jesus said, “I’m going to tear this Temple down and in three days raise it up!”

But it made no sense to the crowds that day, and neither did it register with his disciples. Only after he had lived, died, and rose again did they realize that he was talking about himself as the Temple of the Lord.

According to John’s Gospel, this moment by the temple not only kicks off Jesus’ ministry, but it’s also the event that puts a target on his back until he’s nailed to the cross. In one moment of physical and audible proclamation he put the religious elite in their place and shook things up.

Zeal for they house has consumed me.

The New Testament is filled with references to the Old Testament – both explicitly and implicitly. From biblical characters literally quoting from one of the prophets, to simple allusions that run back and forth, to people saying more than they know with the words they use – the two testaments are inextricably tied up with one another. 

Of all the Old Testament books, the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms are quoted the most in the New Testament. In fact, in my line of work, people often refer to Isaiah as the fifth gospel because it show up so much in the other four.

But there is just something special about the way the Psalms show up in the Gospel stories. 

Notably, Jesus, as a good rabbinic jew, would’ve had the whole psalter memorized and the words of Psalms are used by Jesus to refer to himself, and by others to make sense of what they experienced in Jesus. 

Put simply – the psalms are the prayer book of Jesus Christ int he truest sense of the world – Jesus prayed the psalter and now it has become his prayer for for all time.

So when Jesus shows up in the Temple, starts flipping tables and chasing people with the whip, his followers immediately process the scene through one of the Psalms: “zeal for your house has consumed me.”

Contrary to how Jesus is often portrayed with his weak and quiet and reserved demeanor, whether its in sermons or Sunday school classes or even in movies, home boy was quite zealous. That is, he was on fire for things not yet seen.

In our text today he has a temple tantrum, flipping over tables and calling out the powers and principalities all as a commentary against what the faith of God’s people had become.

Regularly throughout his earthly ministry Jesus spent time among the movers and shakers and called them out for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Time and time again Jesus walked straight into complicated and even dangerous situations to reveal the confounding nature of grace and faith from meeting Mary Magdalene shortly before her being stoned to death to stopping to talk with the woman at the well.

Jesus was nothing if not zealous.

So much so that, on one notable occasion, his family thought he was completely bonkers and tried to stop him from continuing on the path that inevitably led to his cross.

Or, as the psalmist puts it, I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me!

But they didn’t stop him. You see, nothing could stop Jesus from doing when he did – he was consumed with zeal for his Father’s house. 

Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure. 

Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.

Jesus makes a way where there is no way.

That’s exactly who Jesus is!

And, lest we ever forgets, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus.

Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed.

God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacent, and is probing us to wonder and the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be

Taking at step back from the scene in the temple, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace

There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.

And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.

And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.

Or, as others have put it, we never move unless someone steps on our toes.

And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well is things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.

We might reject transformation and disruption, we might cling with all of our strength to the status quo, we might not be comfortable with Jesus’ zealous side, but none of us could ever rejoice in the knowledge of salvation were it not for Jesus’ disruption of the way things were that eventually led to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present remind of what happened should any of us start asking all of the right questions.

We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.

And yet, it only takes a minor gander of the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption. 

We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.

“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.

But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace. Amen.

Breaking The Law To Hear The Gospel

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith.

And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas week almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

Below you can find three of the most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“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 to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to 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.

Start Acting Like A Child!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Gift-giving, church complaints, Christmastide, loud voices, cowbell, praying for the land, the Gospel in 4 verses, public displays of piety, intergenerational ministry, outrageous grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Start Acting Like A Child!

Like A Thief In The Night

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Judges 4.1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including talented theology, judging Judges, transformed leadership, reoriented posture, Advent all the time, problematic language, ecclesial encouragement, paradoxical parables, and justice in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Like A Thief In The Night

God Said It

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

We, the church, have been breaking one of God’s laws, and it’s high time for us to atone for our sin. Frankly, I can’t believe we’ve been so brazen to keep wantonly going on like this, but I guess we’ve been drunk on our own self-righteousness to do much of anything about it.

So, today, I’m going to get us all squared away so that we can get back on God’s good side.

We need to destroy the church bathrooms.

It’s as clear as day in scripture and if God says it, then it’s settled.

Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “What’s Taylor on talking about church bathrooms at a time like this? We haven’t even used the church bathrooms for 5 months?” While some of you are wondering, “What Bible has he been reading?”

Deuteronomy 23.12-14, a paraphrase – “You shall have an area outside the camp for you to take care of your bathroom business. Make sure you bring a shovel with you, and when you relieve yourself outside, cover up your excrement. God is with you, to save you from your enemies, therefore your place of worship must be holy, so that God may not see anything indecent among you.”

Look it up sometime.

So, after prayerful consideration, whenever we do reopen for in-person worship, we will no longer have bathrooms in the church buildings. We will, however, endeavor to construct some outhouses on the edge of our property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

Have you ever read that passage from the Bible? Have you ever heard someone preach on it? Chances are, you haven’t. But in the 1880’s, here in the US, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of theological debate. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

Seriously.

For some, the Old Testament rules about the Israelite encampments were just as valid for churches as they were for God’s wandering people. Therefore, some preachers stood up in their pulpits nearly over 100 years ago to fight against the growing trend of bathrooms in churches!

Today, of course, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t about what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design would enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit inside the building, but how many bathrooms should there be and where should they be situated.

God said it, I believe it, that settles it! 

It’s a common refrain among Christian types though it can appear in different ways. “The Bible is clear about this…” is another similar expression, as is “We’ve got to follow the Bible.”

Years ago, in a Bible study, we were going through the appointed text for the day when a woman interrupted the conversation with a personal dilemma. She told us that her son recently came home with a tattoo on his arm and she was completely devastated. And I, being the young and naive clergy that I was (and still am) said something like, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a tattoo.”

To which she replied, “If God says it’s not allowed in the Bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there and moved the conversation to another place, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Oh, so you don’t eat pork or shrimp or cheeseburgers? And you’re telling us about your son so that we can join you in stoning him to death this afternoon for disrespecting your wishes? And, you didn’t mean to wear those earrings today because you know the Bible forbids them as well? And, for that matter that polyester jacket you wore in today is also off limits, as is your husband’s clean shaven face!

I repent, O Lord, for my unChristian Bible Study behavior. 

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is wildly problematic, and basically impossible. If we strive to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be able to wear blended fabrics, sow two different kinds of seed in one garden, children who curse their parents would be put to death, and if you mowed your lawn on Sunday afternoon you would be put to death as well. 

God said it, I believe it, that settles it. 

It’s another one of those trite and cliche Christianisms that often float around in our conversations. When we get into debates and arguments with others about particular biblical concepts, like prohibitions against tattoos, watching movies about wizards, or any other number of things, someone is likely to take a verse out of content and use it like a bludgeon against the person they disagree with.

Because, you know, if God said it then it’s settled.

Right? 

Or maybe there’s more to the Bible than the way we’ve been treating it.

Today, as I already noted, no one is worrying about whether or not to build a church with a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belittle the men in their congregations for trimming their beards, and we all neglect to adhere to certain passages all the while holding other passages over the heads of others.

The Bible is full of all sorts of rules and regulations that we pick and choose according to our own proclivities.

Our passage today comes from Paul first letter to the church in Corinth and he drops a line on the dozing Corinthians that makes (some of) us cringe today: “Women should be silent in churches.”

This, of course, is a line we willfully ignore/disobey regularly. Back in the days when we still gathered in-person for worship (remember?) we regularly had female liturgists who stood to read God’s Word for all of us, we’ve had at least 3 guest preachers in the last 3 years all of whom were women, and that’s to say nothing of the many times we’ve had women lead us in congregational singing.

However, there are churches who believe the language regarding the supposed subordination of women is the Gospel truth. In those churches, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible studies when men are present, and they are not allowed to do anything that would ever require them to speak in front of the gathered congregation.

Which, to be honest, is rather strange – even from a biblical standpoint. Paul certainly offers his opinion here in 1 Corinthians, and he does so in other letters as well, but the New Testament is filled with other examples that completely contradict Paul’s words. Women are noted as prophets, evangelists, and apostles, Paul even refers to Euodia and Syntyche as coworkers who struggled together with him in the ministry of the Gospel, and Aquila taught the ways of God among the earliest Christians.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that without female preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Contrary to the verse in question from Paul today, the Gospel (Good News in a world drowning in bad news) radically altered the position of women, elevating them to a partnership with men that was unparalleled in the first century. 

And yet, the church, as a whole, has been remarkably slow in embracing the New Testament’s vision of mutuality among people regardless of any distinctions. Even within the New Testament, there is a vacillation between a vision of things not yet seen and a keeping things the way they are.

And its that dance, it’s the movement back and forth, that really stands at the center of the statement, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Like the many apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking to us even today. But we aren’t just passive recipients of what it says, lifting it up like a weapon to be used against others. We ask questions of it. We pray for the wisdom and guidance to discern how it shapes our lives. We wrestle with the text and then, in community, we do the hard and important work of interpretation. 

Paul might have something to say about women being silent in church, but many of us would simply not be Christians unless women were brave enough to stand and speak in churches.

The Bible might have more than 200 verses in support of slavery, but we recognize that slavery is incompatible with God’s kingdom here on earth.

We might read about doing our business outside the boundary of God’s holiness, but we don’t build churches without bathrooms.

The best way to do the work of interpretation is to be the disciples Jesus has called us to be – in short, we follow Jesus’ example.

Contrary to how we might imagine the Lord in scripture, Jesus did not adhere to the strict biblical literalism that is still found in some churches today. He had wildly different ideas and interpretations of Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly violated the Law of the Old Testament by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian today is all about developing a lens by which we can encounter the strange new world of the Bible and proclaim it for this time and this place.

Even the Bibles to which we turn are themselves works of interpretation. 

Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from the Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but the words we use can make all the difference. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s how the New Revised Standard Version renders John 3.16 – easily one of the most well known verses in all of scriptures. But what many of us do not know is that the word for “perish” in Greek is APOLLUMI and it can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, to be killed, or to be ruined. 

Each of those different words can change the meaning of the text in ways both small and large and they are a product of interpretation.

Therefore whenever we take up a Bible, whenever we flip to a particular passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the words. And to make it all the more challenging, even the best translations leave us to continue the work of interpretation.

So, how do we do it?

Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our Bibles all by ourselves and decide we know exactly what God is saying, we don’t listed to a sermon and decide that the end all be all on the subject.

We interpret God’s Word in community. 

We read from commentaries on scripture from those who came before us, we engage in Bible studies where iron sharpens iron and we come to know more than we would on our own, we send emails to our friends and pastor with questions so that we can come closer to the strange new world of the Bible.

And, we let Jesus help us interpret. 

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As God’s definitive Word, Jesus helps us understand the words within the Word. We read from both the Old and New Testaments through the lends of Christ and we can then do the good and sometimes hard work of wrestling with how these words continue to speak into our lives.

But that requires a whole lot more than, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” 

For, those who say “The Bible is clear” are those who have never really read the Bible. Reading scripture, the work of interpretation, is hard work. It calls us to become servants of the Word rather than masters of the text. And, frustratingly enough, that work never ends.

People have used God’s Holy Word with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery and racism. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward those who believe differently. 

It has been used as a weapon over and over again.

So today, we, the people of God, who come to the text with fear and trembling witnessing to the fact that it gives life, we repent for the ways we have used it to take life away.

And with the courage of the Spirit we join together to say, “no more!”

“No more!” To the use of Scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized.

“No more!” To the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for being exactly who they are.

“No more!” To the backward ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” To God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. 

I love the strange new world of the Bible. I fell in love with it as a kid sitting between my parents in the pews on Sunday mornings, I still fall in love with it every time I take it up and read. And I think what I love most about it is the fact that it is alive. It is not some dead book that demands to be kept in the past. 

It is alive, and it gives life. Amen. 

What Is Our Why?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 45.1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.10-28). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Augustine’s Confessions, the cost of reconciliation, Last Week Tonight, the oddity of unity, oily abundance, the irrevocability of the Gospel, cancel culture in the church, preaching in prison, and identifying with the right characters. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Is Our Why?

The Gospel According To Paul

Romans 8.1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the  church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.

But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.

It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.

Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.

And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.

That is, all of them.

Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”

Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!

No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do. 

At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ. 

And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.

Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace. 

And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!

Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.

Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.

Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.  

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

God Works With Manure

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 25.19-34, Psalm 119.105-112, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including self-care, ordinary people, church pro-tips, low hanging fruit, family problems, lamps in parenting, other gods, the Gospel in Romans, peaceful living, sowing stories, and fertilizing with the Word. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Works With Manure