Flesh and Bone

Psalm 34.19-22

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. 

John 19.31-37

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” 

I stood before the gathered church and began, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

“Lift up your hearts.”

“We lift them up to the Lord.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

Countless times had I uttered the words. Innumerable Sundays marked by the words recalling the mighty acts of God’s salvation.

“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his friends and said: ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his friends, and said: ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

I prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of us, and on the gifts of the bread and the cup, that they might be the body and blood of Christ for us, and they we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

I broke the bread.

I lifted the cup.

I invited the people of God to feast.

One by one they came with hands outstretched recognizing the gift being given. One by one they received the bread, they dipped it in the cup, and they put God in their mouths.

Until the final person in line stepped forward.

He was probably 12 years old, I had never seen him before, and his parents were nowhere to be found.

He said, “Can I ask you a question?” 

“Of course,” I replied.

“Did you really say that we get to eat his body and drink his blood?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Wow,” he said, “Church is way more rad than I thought it would be.”

And with that he feasted on the Lord.

Sometimes it takes a 12 year-old boy’s question to knock us out of our comfort with familiarity. How many times had I presided over the meal without thinking about what it might sound like to someone unfamiliar with church? How many times had I shared the bread and the cup with people who saw it merely as a routine? How many times had I myself feasted on the Lord without thinking about actually feasting on the Lord?

There’s a physicality to all of this. And by this I mean the church.

We stand, we sing, we bring our hands together. We eat, we breathe, we laugh, we cry.

It is good and right for us to experience the physicality of it all because God’s love has a physicality to it. It is not as obscure or as intangible as we might think.

God’s love can be felt, and seen, and tasted, and heard, and (probably even) smelled.

Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, God’s love for God’s people shows up as manna, a voice, through blood, a pillar of smoke, a raging fire.

And in its fullest expression, God’s love shows up as an actual person: Jesus.

Jesus is the Lord made flesh – God emptied God’s self, took the form of a slave being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, as Paul puts it in the letter to the church in Philippi. 

And yet, more often than not, church becomes some sort of ethereal, spiritual, or merely mystical manifestation. We spend time thinking about how, whatever we do in here, it connects with us only in ways that are intangible.

But Jesus is the Lord made flesh and skin and bone. 

Christianity, despite claims to the contrary, is inherently materialistic because God becomes material in Jesus.

God, to put it bluntly, becomes us.

We find Jesus in our scripture today on the other side of crucifixion. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before Pilate and the religious authorities, stripped, beaten, marched to Golgotha, nailed to the cross, left to die.

And then John tells us that, because it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before Passover, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the sabbath. In Deuteronomy the people of God are specifically commanded to not allow a corpse to remain all night upon a tree (Deuteronomy 21.23) and the conflation with the day of Preparation made the hanging bodies even worse. Therefore they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and their bodies removed.

Crucifixion was an explicitly horrific way to die. Not only were individuals hung for all to see, a reminder about what happens when you challenge the powers that be, but they eventually died because they could no longer support their bodies enough to breathe. Breaking legs was, strangely, an act of kindness that would bring death faster rather than letting it run its natural course.

The soldiers then came to break the legs of the crucified men but when they saw that Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers took a spear and ran it through Jesus’ rib cage and blood and water came spilling out.

Strange. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t include these details shortly after Jesus’ death. And yet John lifts them up for those who wish to follow Jesus.

These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

In some way, John wants us to see that all of it, even the very death of Jesus and the treatment of his dead body, is part of God’s great salvific narrative. There are connections drawn from the cross back to the book of Exodus and to the Prayer Book of God’s people, the Psalms.

Jesus suffered and died on a cross because the cross is the way Rome made an example of those who asked too many questions, pushed too many buttons, and instilled too many fears.

And yet, if we were asked why Jesus suffered an died on a cross, we’re likely to say something like, “He died to make us right with God” or “It was Jesus’ way of forgiving us” or “He died so we could go heaven.”

Which, to be clear, aren’t necessarily wrong. The cross is a moment of reconciliation, Jesus does forgive all of us from the cross, and it is part and parcel with what salvation means.

But one of the things we often gloss over, something John really wants us to see and remember, is that Jesus died on the day of Preparation for Passover. 

And Passover isn’t about being right with God. The Lord didn’t look upon the misdeeds of the Hebrews in Egypt and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones. I will wash away your sin.”

No.

God says, “I’m getting you out of Egypt! Let’s go!”

Passover is about freedom.

Back in Egypt God’s people were given specific instructions to follow in terms of their Exodus, their deliverance from oppression, and the connections with Jesus’ life and death are rampant:

Jesus is without sin and innocent of the charges lobbed again him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus is beaten to the point of death and pierced in the side, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.

Jesus was hung high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the Passover lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

Perhaps we’ve always seen the connections, maybe John’s words are already obvious to us, but in case our vision has been on something else, the Bible is begging us to see that the cross is our exodus – it is our delivery out of captivity into something new.

The Psalms and the Exodus story contain these particular details about unbroken bones not as throwaway lines about God’s strange obsession with anatomy and rule-following, but because the transfiguration of the cosmos is something physical and tangible. They help us to see how even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the great sweeping narrative of how far God was willing to go for God’s people.

How far God was willing to go for you and for me.

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”

We are, to use the language of the Psalm, rescued by the Lord on the cross, it is our exodus from death to resurrection. In the end of all things, in the resurrection of the dead, God keeps our bones and, as Ezekiel so vividly conveys it, will reknit us to be who we will be in the New Heaven and in the New Earth.

John the Baptist proclaims toward the beginning of the Gospel that Jesus was the Lamb of God. And John the Evangelist takes that proclamation to its beautiful conclusion: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This story, as strange and tangible and difficult as it is, is like God saying to us, “You want to know what I’m like? You want to know what I’m up to? Look no further than the One hanging on the cross! You cannot break my bones! I am the Passover Lamb who comes to bring you the exodus you need more than you know!”

In many ways, even though it’s perplexing, this is an easy text to preach. For, all of us are all well aware of the innocent suffering that takes place in this world. 

A man walked into three massage parlors in Atlanta this week and murdered eight people because, as the law enforcement put it, he was having a bad day.

We just hit the one year no in-person worship because of the Coronavirus, a virus that has now been contracted by more than 121 million people across the globe, and is responsible for more than half a million deaths just here in the United States.

It doesn’t take that long to scroll through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, or to turn on the evening news so see exactly why God had to send his Son into the world.

Jesus is the only hope we have. 

And when he came to teach about the kingdom of God, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and lift up the last, least, lost, little, and dead, how did we respond? We hung him in a tree to die.

But that’s not the end of the story.

God did not leave God’s people in chains in Egypt, and God does not leave us stuck under the terrible tyranny of sin and death.

Jesus Christ, with bones unbroken, is our Passover Lamb and reminds us that God is in the business of deliverance.

Because Jesus did what Jesus did, because he mounted the hard wood of the cross, offered a decree of forgiveness, died, and was resurrected, we are no longer bound or defined by our mistakes or our sins or our shames. 

Jesus became sin who knew no sin, nailed them all to the cross, and left them there forever. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have already been forgiven, and we’ve been set  free.

What was done to us does not define us.

What we’ve done, and failed to do, is no longer kept in a ledger of God’s design.

Our scars and our wounds and our sins and our shames may be real, but so is our rescue.

Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that we’ll stay stuck exactly where we are doing to the same things over and over again.

Jesus says, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that all of us will walk in the light of grace knowing that just as God broke the chains in Egypt, our chains to sin and death are broken right here and right now.

Which is all just another way of saying, “Church is way more rad than we often think it is.” Amen. 

Jesus Is Not A New Moses

We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the Law refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever. 

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world. 

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make. 

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. 

We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us. 

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun. 

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference. 

Faithful Failure

Psalm 118.20-24

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Mark 8.27-33

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

They were walking along the road when suddenly the Lord stopped.

The disciples look around as if a message is about to descend from the heavens or, at the very least, maybe some manna will come floating down. 

But instead, Jesus just stands there with a slightly furrowed brow.

Hey,” he begins, “let me ask ya’ll a question: Who do people say that I am?

“Well, I heard someone in the crowd yesterday whisper about you being the best thing to come out of Nazareth since on-call carpentry.”

“Yeah, and when we left your home synagogue, they kept calling you Mary and Joseph’s boy.”

“I’ve got one J, and you’re gonna love this because he’s your cousin, but some people are calling you John the Baptist.”

“I can top that – I was talking with one of the Pharisees last week and he kept referring to you as the prophet Elijah!”

Fine,” Jesus replies, “That’s all fine. But who do you say that I am?

Silence.

Until Peter, ever eager Peter, nonchalantly replies, “You’re the Messiah.

And that’s why you’re the rock!” Jesus high-fives the first called disciple, and they continue on their merry way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

However, right before walking into a large gathered crowd, Jesus pulls his followers in close in a huddle. “Hey, remember that stuff about me being the Messiah? Don’t tell anyone okay? They all have their own notions about what the Messiah is supposed to say and do, and if you go around telling them the truth, they’re going to try and fit me into their boxes which simply won’t do in the Kingdom. Understand? Good.” 

Then Jesus walks smack dab into the middle of the people and he begins teaching them the Gospel: “The Son of Man, that’s me, must undergo great suffering, I will be rejected by the people in power, the elders, chief priests, and even the scribes won’t go along with what I’ve got to offer. And then they’re gonna kill me, hang me up on a cross for everyone to see. But guess what? Three days later, I’m going to rise again!

And Peter, who shortly before was the only disciple to get the right answer, grabs his Lord by the arm and yanks him away from the crowds. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t die! You’re the Messiah! You are the Christ! You’re the one whose going to set everything right, put us back in charge, make Jerusalem great again and all that! You can’t be the Messiah and be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense.

But Jesus pulls his arm back from Peter, looks back out over the crowd and screams: “Get behind me Satan! You’ve got you mind stuck on earthly matters, but I’ve come to overcome the world!

Peter gets it right and Peter gets it wrong.

Along the road he provides a straight answer about Jesus’ identity (a welcome reprieve from all the hop-stepping we usually do when asked a question). But then later, when the Christ, the Messiah whom he just confessed, starts making ominous references to suffering and shame and even crucifixion, Peter gets it wrong.

Dead wrong.

And in the blink of an eye he goes from Peter the rock to Peter the block head, from the first called disciple to being called Satan.

I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. I love his eagerness and his faithfulness and I really love how much of a failure he is. Peter, in our passage from the strange new world of the Bible today, joins a long line of biblical failures:

Noah, the only good soul the Lord could find, delivers the survivors of the flood to dry land only to plant some grape vines and proceeds to get good and drunk.

Judah, son of Jacob, accidentally sleeps with his own daughter-in-law who pulled one over on his by dressing up as a harlot. And when Judah finds out that she got knocked up while a lady of the night, he orders her to be burned at the stake and he only relents when he discovers that he, himself, fathered the child in her.

And David? David rapes a woman and then has her husband murdered in order to cover up his transgression.

When you take in the great swath of characters from scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, they’re mostly a bunch of losers who keep messing up over and over again.

What wonderfully Good News!

Their failures of faith are in fact Good News because they help rid us of the suffocating notion that we have to be perfectly and squeakily clean in order to follow Jesus.

They remind us over and over again that only when we let go of the facade of our never-ending niceness and our righteous certainty and our perennial self-improvement projects, that the splendor of grace can hit us squarely in the chest.

Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to receive Christ’s mercy if we don’t think we need it.

The life of faith is one in which we come to grips with the condition of our condition only then to be bombarded with the Good News that God in Christ has transformed all things for a bunch of people undeserving!

Do you see? Peter here, in his failure, helps us see that our failure (whether big or small, intentional or unintentional) none of that excludes us from God.

Consider: Peter is called Satan, by Jesus! 

Can you imagine anything worse?

Called by the Lord while fishing, witness to miracles and healings and feedings and teachings, the confessor of the truth of Jesus’s identity, the rock upon which Jesus says he will building his church!

And then he gets it wrong.

But that’s not the end of his wrongness. 

On their final evening together Jesus tells Peter that before the morning Peter will deny knowing him. To which, of course, Peter scoffs. And yet, it’s true. Made all the worse by the fact that this first disciple joins the rest in abandoning the Lord to die on the cross. Alone.

Jesus quite literally does what he says he will do, the very things Peter can’t get on board with, and then three days later he rises to find his first disciple by the sea, shares some bread and broiled fish, and gives him a job to do.

In the church, we call this grace.

It is the unmerited, undeserved, gift of God in Christ Jesus.

It’s wild stuff.

Made all the more wild considering how often we squander the gift.

We, like Peter, build up these ideas for ourselves about who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for and those ideas, more often than not, crumble under our feet. We convince ourselves that Jesus is on our side (which, of course means Jesus is against the people we’re against) when in fact Jesus has not come to bring us more of the same, whatever it may be. 

Jesus has overcome the world and all of its machinations.

Let’s say we believe, as Peter did, that Jesus comes to overthrow the current reigning political proclivities. Sure, fine, but what happens when the people in power stay in power? Does that mean Jesus failed?

Jesus is not an instrument of either side of partisan politics. Jesus is God! And God has come to dwell among us, to rectify our wrongs, to save us from ourselves, and to turn the cosmos upside down. 

Put simply, our notions of Jesus are, more often than not, too limited.

We’re like Peter. Perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos, we’ve experienced something we can’t explain, we’ve had a taste of the holy food, and yet we still want Jesus to fit into whatever box we’ve construed in our minds. 

But Peter came to know the truth of Jesus in a way that we do well to remember whenever we can: Jesus was rejected.

And not just by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

Jesus was rejected by his own disciples!

Jesus was rejected by Peter!

The Elect Son of Man and Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.

Jesus is regaled by the crowds with their cries of “Hosanna” when he enters Jerusalem and, by the end of Holy Week, those same crowds lift up clenched fists with shouts of “Crucify!”

The Lord comes to deliver the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to, in the end, hang on the cross and becomes the very thing he came to deliver.

But this is the Good News: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

He has taken the cleanup of the cosmos entirely into his own hands, hands with holes in them. He does not hang from the cross until we confess our sins, he doesn’t wait in the grave until we get our lives together. He does what he does without us having to do anything – which makes the Gospel the most radical thing in history.

He does what he does for Peter knowing precisely that he would fail.

He does what he does for us knowing precisely that we will fail.

At the end of all things, the only thing we can really do is rest and trust in the knowledge that Jesus has come to do something for us that we couldn’t and wouldn’t do on our own.

Couldn’t, because none of us can atone for our sins, let alone for the sins of the world.

And wouldn’t, because Jesus insists on letting in all the riff riff that we would otherwise ignore.

The casket was set up by the altar and the family was in the narthex waiting for the funeral to begin. I, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in the parking lot, feeling sorry for the family because no one else showed up for the funeral.

There’s something terribly sad about a sparsely attended service for the dead.

But, frankly, I couldn’t blame people for not showing up. The man now dead, the one whose body was shut up in the coffin, was one of the meanest and most awful people I’d ever known. He belittled people, he was terribly racist, and he spoke his mind without caring at all about how much it could hurt. He would shout at people during church meetings, he would stick his finger into people’s faces during fellowship, and would loudly complain about everything even when people weren’t around to listen.

Two minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, while I was making my way across the parking lot to the narthex, cars started streaming in. 

One by one I watched people from the church community step out of the cars and across the parking lot, and with each passing one I replayed moments in my mind of how horrible the dead man had been to each of the people walking in. 

The last person to step across the threshold of the sanctuary was an older woman with whom the dead man had been particularly horrible. I motioned for her to come close and I whispered in her ear, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him!”

To which she replied, “Well preacher, didn’t you say last Sunday that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?” 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.

The Gospel On A Bumper Sticker

Mark 8.31

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribe, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

What’s the Good News?

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but how we answer that question can make all the difference in the world.

A friend of mine, also a pastor, is currently in the process of hiring an associate pastor to join him in his parish ministry. He looked through a handful of resumes and eventually reached out to interview some of the strongest candidates. In each conversation they discussed call stories, best church practices, and a handful of other topics, but my friend ended each interview with the same question, “What is the Good News?”

One would hope that clergy would know how to respond to such an inquiry, but the candidates struggled to articulate the faith they have committed their lives to.

Which makes me curious… how would you answer the question?

Let’s imagine someone has come to you with a tremendous opportunity – The person has agreed to pay for hundreds of bumper stickers to be passed out to all the members of the church in order to drum up some conversations in the community, but you have to come up with the slogan for the bumper sticker AND the slogan has to be the answer to the question: “What is the Good News?”

So, what’s your answer?

(Will Willimon once told me he could summarize the Gospel in seven words: “God refuses to be God without us”)

The Grammar of Christian Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Dogmatics in Outline, covenants, proper fear, Taize worship, the coming generations, hoping against hope, flipping expectations, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Grammar of Christian Faith

The Scratchy Sweater of Lent

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Bob Dylan and youth ministry, Karl Barth, the liturgy of Lent, double rainbows, The Brick Testament, Ellen Davis, mercy, and the immediacy of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Scratchy Sweater of Lent

God’s Reigning Attribute

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Isaiah 40.21-31, Psalm 147.1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9.16-23, Mark 1.29-39). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including online prayer, defining the divine, Beastie Boys, practiced patience, Five Irony Frenzy, unpacking the Gospel, lettuce sermons, the heart of integrity, and preaching the same sermon over and over again. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God’s Reigning Attribute

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.