The Adventure of Faith

Mark 10.35-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He merely says, “Follow me.”

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

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

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

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

Therefore, we never really choose to be Christians. 

Discipleship is something done to us.

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

That something is named Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith is about following.

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

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

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

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

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

(More) Reasons To Join A Church

Psalm 104.24

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

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

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

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

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

To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

A Different Kind Of Church

Psalm 124.8

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

“A Different Kind Of Church.”

Or: “Not Your Typical Church.”

I see these slogans online, on tee-shirts, on billboards.

And, truth be told, they drive me crazy. They drive me crazy because they all present a version of church that is false advertising.

It’s the same when churches boldly proclaim their commitment to inclusiveness. It’s one thing to say it, and another thing entirely to live it.

More often than not, the call to inclusiveness in the church is all about getting people in the door. Some pastor says, “God loves you just the way you are,” but then, rather quickly, the church becomes a program of moral observance and we no longer want people to be the way they are – we want them to be like us. 

There’s no such thing as a different kind of church. Sure, churches might vary in expressions of worship, or missional engagement, or even multicultural representation. But, at the end of the day, churches are all the same because they are filled with the same kinds of people: sinners.

The most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that all of us are the sinners for whom Christ died. 

Put that up on a billboard and see what happens!

Karl Barth puts it this way: “It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong… We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is therefore a liberation that… [in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.”

We live in a time in which church and individuals alike excel in the practice of marginalization. That is: we delight in demonstrating all of our rightness against all the wrongness we see around us. It’s why we put certain names on our bumper stickers and attack people on social media and whisper when particular people dare to sit near us in church. 

Despite what we might feel, or even believe, there are no innocents in human history. Most of our programs to make the world a better place accomplish little more than making the people who created the programs feel better about themselves (read: ourselves). 

We don’t need programs. We don’t need “different kinds of churches.”

The only thing we need is the One who comes to deliver us from ourselves. That deliverer’s name is Jesus Christ – the judged Judge who comes to be judged in our place – the great rectifier of our wrongs. 

Or, to put it another way, our help isn’t in us. Our help is in God. Could there be any better news than that?

Even Us

Mark 8.34

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”

It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.

But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us. 

Expect The Unexpected

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. 

But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.

Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.

Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.

It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.

“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”

As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.

And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.

“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”

A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people. 

Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.

And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.

God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.

Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.

Because none of us deserve him. 

She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even. 

Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.

In other words, God likes crowded tables.

There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.

But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?

Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.

And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.

Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”

When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”

And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”

Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.

In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.

Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.

The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.

There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.

And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.

I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since. 

A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.

And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.

Until that night.

The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”

The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”

So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help. 

She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.

They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”

He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her. 

She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in. 

Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.

We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.

But that is the heart of grace.

We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.

People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us. 

God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.

God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace. 

One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate. 

And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen. 

By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Poetry is not my forte.

That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.

Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.

But poetry? No thank you.

Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.

Poetry takes time.

And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.

Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word. 

And that takes time.

Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are. 

A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true

That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

Subtle Allegiances

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Josh is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including spicy spices, Solomonic wisdom, the power of place, door holders, the agency of armor, Martin Luther, the powers and principalities, rational arguments, The Dude, discipleship, Bo Giertz, and pickles. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Subtle Allegiances

Forgiven To Forgive

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 

I am convinced that the crucible of Sunday morning worship doesn’t actually happen in this space, but takes place in the 5-10 minutes immediately following the service, and the email inbox on Monday mornings.

Yes, what we do in our hour together is powerful and faithful and transformative. We gather, we proclaim, we respond, we are sent forth. That’s all good and fine.

But it’s in the time after our time in here that really shows what happened during our time together.

The Sunday morning debrief, otherwise known as the receiving line following worship, is  wonderful, bewildering, and terrifying.

More often than not someone will make a comment about the weather or about lunch plans. A few of you have noted, as of recent, that it hasn’t rained since I arrived in town, so thanks for trying to pin that on me. Good stuff.

Occasionally I’ll hear something profound like, “I really heard God speak today” or, “You really gave me something to think about.” Good stuff.

But every once in a while I hear a comment that cuts through all the rest. Someone, usually waiting until most people clear out, will step forward and say something like, “I didn’t like it. But I’m not sure which part I enjoyed less, the sermon or the scripture.”

And, frankly, I can’t blame those who feel that way. Have you read the Bible? Be careful! There’s some wild stuff in there.

Two female bears descend from the wilderness and maul 42 young boys for making fun of a bald headed prophet (2 Kings 2).

A preacher goes on a little too long while a young man dozes in a window and then he falls out of said window to his death (Acts 20).

God commands a prophet to walk around naked for three years as a sign against foreign nations (Isaiah 20).

And those are just the first three that come to mind!

But even Jesus has a penchant for strange stories.

God is like a shepherd with 100 sheep. And, when one sheep goes missing, the Good Shepherd delights in leaving the 99 behind in order to find the one who is lost.

That’s a quaint little story, one we teach to our children. But you know what happens when you leave the flock behind to go in search of the one missing? It only guarantees 99 more lost sheep! That’s no way to run a shepherding business.

God is like a sower who sows seeds all over the place regardless of the soil upon which the seeds land. 

That’s another nice one, it’s good imagery for those who enjoy gardening. Except, if you ask anyone who has spent any time with agriculture, that’s no way to do it. It’s a tremendous waste of seeds if you toss them onto the sidewalk and what about tiling the soil and moisture management? God, apparently, doesn’t have a very green thumb. 

Or how about this one: 

Two men enter a temple to pray, one a Pharisee – a man committed to the word of the Law, attentive to the demands of scripture, he gave a tenth of all he had to the poor and needy, prayed, fasted, and kept himself clean. He could’ve run for office without fear of anyone finding a skeleton in his closet. He was proud of being who he was.

The other man was a reprehensible tax collector, a publican, taking money from his own people and giving it to the empire, a political traitor, he was dirty. The kind of man no one made eye contact with. 

And that day the Pharisee saw the good for nothing tax collector and declared, in prayer, “Lord, thank you that I am not like him!” Meanwhile, the tax collector, with fear and trembling, prayed, “Please God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And the tax collector walked away forgiven, justified.

I mean, Jesus, what kind of ship are you running? That’s not fair! You keep telling stories like that and no one will want to do any of this religious stuff. It’s irresponsible. The parable of the publican and the pharisee is all wrong. It’s the Pharisee that should walk away forgiven, he’s done all the right things. And the the publican, he should’ve been thrown in jail, or at the very least, kicked out of town by the very people he swindled.

You know, two weeks ago I decided to retell the parable of the prodigal and one of you came up to me after the service and said, with good intentions I think, “Well, I can’t believe you said the F word in church.”

Friends, I confess that for the briefest of moments I had to think back – Did I, a preacher of the Word, use such a word in my sermon?

But before I had a chance to respond this person said, “Forgiveness. What a dangerous word: forgiveness.”

Paul writes to the budding church in Ephesus about the positive and negative consequences of the great shadow that God casts upon the lives of disciples. When God grabs hold of us, everything changes whether we want it to or not. Somewhere along the line we discover that God, bewilderingly, has given us a sacred and indestructible trust – we are stuck with the body of Christ. 

It’s not easy being stuck with people, especially with pharisees and tax collectors. It’s a challenge to be among such individuals, and yet here we are, surrounded by sinners and scoundrels alike. 

But it is when discipleship becomes challenging that we know the mercy of God is at work in our lives. The weight of all these weighty expectations that Paul drops on us: put away all your wrath and bitterness and slander and malice, be kind and tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you – the call to this kind of life is for those who know they stand in and on God’s grace alone.

Put another way – It’s only the Spirit of freedom that give us the freedom to forgive.

Why does the publican walk away forgiven while the Pharisee doesn’t? We can try to insert reasons – perhaps the publican was a man of the people, maybe he was kind in spite of all his tax collecting. And maybe the pharisee was a religious bigot, a viper, a terror to the community.

But Jesus doesn’t provide an answer to those sorts of questions. 

Forgiveness is an odd thing, and I don’t need to tell you that most of us don’t believe in it. Give us the good ol time religion, we’ll read with kids, and purchase school supplies, and feed the hungry, and all sorts of stuff. But forgive the one who has wronged us?

No thank you.

That’s irresponsible behavior! You can’t just let people get away with stuff, we can’t be too soft on sin!

What makes forgiveness so difficult?

Once, when Jesus was teaching, the disciples said, “Wait a minute JC. What you’re saying is too much for us. We need you to increase our faith!”

And what was the topic of conversation? Going the extra mile? Turning the other cheek? Praying for our enemies? No. Jesus was talking about forgiveness.

So Peter speaks up, “Lord, perhaps we should put some limits on this whole forgiveness thing. How does 7 times sound?”

“No,” the Lord replies, “I tell you: 70 times 7 times.”

And Peter, the rock of the church, says something like, “But Jesus, if we forgive that many times, then we’ll go to our grave forgiving.”

“Right,” Jesus says, “You’ll go to your grave forgiving.”

We can’t do it Lord, increase our faith!

Forgiveness comes at a cost – a cost for the one offering forgiveness and for the one receiving. To offer forgiveness implies a willingness to truly see those who have wronged us as fellow sheep in need of a shepherd. And to receive forgiveness implies a willingness to admit that we are people who have wronged the other sheep in the fold.

Jesus routinely criticized the religious leaders of his day for all sorts of nonsense. They were hypocrites and slanderers and thieves and they kept heaping sins upon the backs of those who kept the faith. And then Jesus, God in the flesh, kept passing out forgiveness to those who asked for it and even for those who didn’t know they needed it!

Why then, do we insist on holding our grudges, big and small, when our Lord, the Good Shepherd, is forever out and about beating the bushes of life looking for some lost sheep, some tax collector, and even a pharisee to bring them back in?

Forgiveness is hard.

And yet, it negates and fulfills all righteousness.

In the end, we’re all publicans and pharisees. We facilitate between lives of honesty and lives of denial. We hold on to our anger toward one another and we also foolishly assume that no one could ever be angry at us.

The worst kind of lostness is not knowing how lost we are at all.

The worst kind of sin is to believe that we are without sin.

The worst kind of unforgiveness is to presume that we don’t need forgiveness.

But we are lost, each and every one of us. We’re stuck in the bushes of life, far removed from our shepherd, for the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do. And yet, God keeps insisting meeting us where we are, in the midst of our sins, and never ever stops.

Forgiveness is dangerous stuff, but it gets even wilder because God forgives us before we even have a chance to repent. 

Consider the sheep, it’s probably going to get lost again and again and again. The sheep doesn’t say, “Oh my shepherd, I will never ever get lost again so long as you rescue me.” The sheep just says “Baa!” and the shepherd comes.

Consider the sower, scattering seeds this way and that before the soil has a chance to get itself in shape to receive the seeds that are the Word and God never stops sowing.

Consider the publican, he walks away forgiven but we don’t hearing anything about whether or not he mended his ways. He could go back day after day, 70 times 7 days, and he would walk away forgiven each and every time.

Forgiveness surrounds us in the church, it beats down upon our lives. It’s in the strange new world of the Bible, its in the prayers we pray and the songs we sing, its in the water with which we baptize and it’s in the bread and the cup that we share.

If we ever confess, it is only ever a confession to waking up to what we already have.

In other words, we are forgiven not because we make ourselves forgivable, but only because we have a Forgiver.

And because we have a Forgiver, the only One who can really offer it in the first, we can do impossible things. We can, to borrow the language from Ephesians, put away all malice and anger and strife and fear because we are members of one another, we are one body, we are Christ’s body. 

Look at us! We’re different people from different places with different faces – we are unique from one another in unfathomable ways and yet, we are all equal in this – we are sinners who have been forgiven.

In the end, the sheep who stray happen to be all of us, pharisees and publicans alike. Each and every single one of us here are in need of forgiveness, and each and every single one of us have someone we need to forgive.

It isn’t easy – it might even be dangerous. But there is something much much worse than forgiveness – a life of hatred, resentment, and selfishness.

It’s outrageous stuff, forgiveness. It just also happens to be the way Jesus runs the kingdom. Amen.

Look Up!

Mark 6.30-31

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 

Have you ever seen Norman Rockwell’s 1957 painting “Lift Up Thine Eyes”? It portrays the sidewalk outside of a cathedral in a busy city in which all of the passersby have their heads bowed not in reverence but in distraction.

You can see the burdens of the world in their posture and in their gaze but behind them, up toward the doors to the sanctuary, a solitary church figure is replacing the letters on a small sign that says “Lift Up Thine Eyes” and no one seems to be getting the message.

The painting haunts me.

It haunts me because life, it seems, has done its worst to the people passing by. Shuffling to and fro they carry the burden of their burdens – some are on their way to work, other are perhaps looking for work, and all of them can only see what’s right in front of them: a dirty sidewalk trample upon by countless footsteps.

And yet, what haunts me most is the fact that even though the painting was completed 64 years ago, it is still just as relevant today! Simply put a smart phone or an iPad in every person’s hand and you’ve got a modern Rockwell for 2021.

It should come as no surprise that many of us have spent far more time on devices over the last year and a half than we ever had before. The pandemic cloistered us away from one another such that the only way we could really interact was through a phone (that most people no longer even use as a phone!). This dramatic increase in usage has led to the dramatically ironic arrival of Zoom webinars on “Zoom Fatigue”, silent meditations apps only accessible as podcasts, and week-long digital conferences on the dangers of devices.

I was talking with someone the other day and she casually remarked about how hungry she was, and when I asked what she had for lunch she responded: “I was so busy on my computer that I forgot to eat.”

And it’s not just our addiction to our devices – getting rid of them, or hiding them away for a few hours a day, doesn’t rid of of the weight of the world that we carry around all the time. We carry the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world places on us. We carry the sins and the shames of our past (and our present). We carry the terror of tomorrow and the fear of the future. 

And yet, when we return to Rockwell’s painting – the majority of the scene is in reference (and reverence) to something more. The top portion of the painting displays doves (a sign of the Holy Spirit) almost floating in the air, the saints of the cathedral stand in defiance to the burdens of life, and the church door stands awkwardly open barely beckoning anyone to discover what’s on the other side.

Perhaps what the people in the painting need is an interruption – a person who can meet them where they are and who can show them where they can be, a person who can break into their brokenness to bring relief, healing, and even joy.

Thanks be to God, then, that that’s exactly what we get in the person of Jesus Christ. For, God looked down upon our sins and our shames and chose to become one of us in order to redeem and rectify us. God still looks down upon our imperfections and our shortcomings and calls for us to lift up our eyes not to unattainable achievements or superior morality or continued suffering, but instead God calls for our attention to be lifted to the Cross, to the One who lifts us out of our navel-gazing and into the strange new world made possible by God.