A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth. 

We Are What We See

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 

“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” 

That’s how James Lipton ended every interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. Famous actors would sit before a large audience, answering all sorts of questions about the art and craft of movie-making, and then, at the end, each of them would mull over that last lingering query and have to say something.

George Clooney: “Welcome, c’mon in. Rosemary’s singing, Nat Cole’s on the keys, Buddy Rich is behind the kit, and they’re playing Always.”

Halle Berry: “Your Dad will be so excited to see you.”

Robert Redford: “You’re too early.”

Robin Williams: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”

And James Lipton, himself, once answered the question this way: “James, you were wrong. I do exist. But you may come in anyway.”

It’s a great equalizer, that question. Most of us spend most of our time doing everything we can to not think about the end. And then, these superstars get real for a moment, and they open up in a way that runs counter to their entire profession.

Well, a few years back, some friends and I started recording conversations with theologians and pastors and regular ‘ol Christians for the podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice. And, because nothing original ever happens in the church, we decided to end the episodes with Lipton’s ten questions from Inside The Actor’s Studio. Some of the other questions include, “What’s your favorite sound?” And “What profession would you not like to attempt?” And “What’s your favorite curse word?”

I love that last one. There’s nothing quite like listening to a somewhat famous Christian shift around back and forth deciding whether to tell the truth, or pick a word like “shucks!”

And, like with Lipton, we end with the infamous, “What would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”

Most, of course, answer with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

It’s nice knowing Christians can quote the Bible, but that answer is so boring.

We’ve had only a handful of really striking answers to that question, but perhaps the best of all came from Bishop Will Willimon. Will and I went to church together when I lived in Durham, he was one of my professors when I was in seminary, I’ve got a bunch of his books on the shelves in my office. 

Prior to having him on the pod, he had become quite vocal in his denouncements of modern politics in general and the Trump Administration in particular. He wrote op-eds, he rebuked the former President from the pulpit, on and on.

And then when we asked him the question, this is how he answered: “Welcome Will, it’s about time. We’re so happy to have you here. But before you get too settled, the Trump family is over here and they would like to have a word…”

In theological speak: that is a rather robust understanding of the Eschaton.

In church speak: we do well to remember that Heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners.

In normal speak: If grace really is as amazing as we sing it is, then we are going to be surprised by some of the people we discover in Heaven. 

Imagine, if you can, a sermon that doesn’t start with some sort of punchy anecdote, though I do enjoy the one I just shared. Imagine you come to church, you sit down in these pews, and someone gets up here and says: “Blessed are those of you who are poor, who are hungry, who are unemployed, who are going through marital separation, who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, who are failing in parenting, and who are going through any ordeals.”

You might wonder if the pastor lost his or her marbles.

How could any of those people be blessed?

If a pastor started a sermon in such a radical way, there’s no telling if anyone would still be listening by the end.

But here’s the rub: In the kingdom of the world, the kingdom we think pulls all the strings, if you are poor you are treated like a curse. If your marriage is falling apart, then you are cut off from your friends. If you’re failing in your parenting, then your children go off the rails and the birthday party invitations stop coming in. If you’re going through any type of ordeal, you’re largely left to your own devices.

There’s nothing blessed about going through an ordeal.

At least, not according to the world.

But sermons, and all of worship for that matter, they are not about the kingdom of the World. If they are about anything, they are about Jesus and his kingdom.

The kingdom of God.

And yet, we are so embedded in the world’s way of existence, that we live in constant kingdom confusion.

We can only act within a world, or a kingdom, we can see. What we do in church, through our singing and our praying and our listening and our responding, it’s all about painting a picture.

I know that, at times, church can feel like a program for betterness. That, all things considered, we’re a bunch of good people getting good-er all the time. A sermon can end with a call to social action, or the announcements can pull at our hearts strings in terms of being better paragons of virtue in the community. 

But the truth is a harder pill to swallow. We are not a collection of nice people getting nicer, we’re actually a bunch of bad people who gather with other bad people so that we can cope with our inability to be good.

Therefore the church, properly considered, exists to open our eyes, that we might see, glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.

The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The world will always tell us that the most important things are first, best, found, big, and alive. But the church stands as a stark contrast with the reminder that Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Which, whether we like it or not, eventually includes each and everyone of us.

Jesus can say, in his sermon on the mount, blessed are the poor, and those who mourn, and those who thirst not because he is describing a program for what makes the world a better place. Instead, Jesus uses such striking language to push our vision to the limits so that we might see something so new, so different from everything else have ever seen, and begin to realize that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.

Put another way: The strange new world of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do. Instead, it paints a picture of who God is. 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

John the Revelator sees what we, more often than not, cannot.

The great multitude in the Eschaton, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They sing and the worship together forever and ever. But, oddly, John does not know who they are. And the elder has to answer his question, and ours: they are those who have gone through the great ordeal. 

John catches a glimpse of what Jesus’ promises. In the last days, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we shall rejoice at the Supper of the Lamb. No amount of suffering can stop God from getting what God wants. Each and every one of us will experience ordeals in this life because we live on this side of the end. But, in the same way, there is no amount of good works or repentance that can earn us anything in the resurrection of the dead. In the kingdom of heaven it is by the blood of the Lamb that the sins of the world are taken away. 

Contrary to the often-used joke about St. Peter’s manning the gates to Heaven, there is no bouncer checking the IDs of our goodness before we are swept up into the party. Actually, there might be a bouncer. But if there is a bouncer, his name is Jesus, and he has torn town all the barriers that would ever prevent us from getting in.

Here’s the promise, the promise of God and the promise of scripture and the promise of faith – we will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, the sun will not strike us nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be our shepherd.

This is our comfort and our hope. And there is good reason for us to hear this promise today. It is good for us today because some of us are hungry right now. We hunger for literal food and we hunger for righteousness. Some of us are thirsty for clean water to drink just as others thirst for the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and whose we are.

On and on John speaks of his vision into our lives realities here and now.

But what does the vision mean? We can’t help ourselves from such a question, earthly creatures that we are. I long for the days when images and visions are enough on their own without us having to probe for every little meaning. But, perhaps today, we can at least answer the question with this: 

John’s vision reminds us that not all is as it should be right now.

There’s a sentiment we sometimes share with one another, particularly when we don’t know what else to say: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

And, though its true, we often offer it as a denial of the truth of the world. There are plenty of things to frighten us. We know the depths of pain and the banality of evil. We sit in a sanctuary that is decorated with a cross!

We, therefore, tell the truth of what is happening among the powers and principalities in the world not as denial of their presence, but as a reminder that though they exist, they don’t get the final word.

God gets the first, and the last word. And that word is Jesus.

All of the multitudes gathered in John’s vision are there only because of the last word. We now see what John’s sees because it gives us the strength to live in a world such as ours. 

Consider: The robes are made clean by the blood of the Lamb. We can’t make ourselves clean. We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

As the old prayer book put it, we are miserable offenders.

We can absolutely try to make the world less of a mess for ourselves and others, we can even come with ideas on how to make it more bearable. But any programs for progress or better strategies for better behavior will fail to do what we really need. It those things worked, we would’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now and no one would ever go through an ordeal. 

What we really need is a Savior – we need someone to save us. And that’s exactly what God does for us in Christ Jesus.

Salvation is a gift offered by the only one who can give it: God in Christ. When we know that this gift is given, that it cannot be taken away, it starts to change everything else. Living in the light of grace compels us to be graceful toward ourselves and others.

John helps us to see that, in the end, when all is said and done, when the forces that sometimes cause us to suffer and weep and mourn are vanquished, the once crucified Lamb shall reign at the center of the throne. Every tear will be wiped away not because we have made it so, but because we worship God who reigns above and below. 

Believing is seeing. Amen. 

The Business of Forgiveness

There’s a lot of talk about acceptance/tolerance in the church today. We ask people to be more understanding of others, we create curricula of theological teachings that are so watered down so as to say not much of anything, and we assume that being Christians is the same thing as being nice.

But how would you like to be the one tolerated

Tolerance is always a position for those who are in power. And the kind of power we have in the church is best exemplified in the One whose arms were outstretched on the hard wood of the cross. Put another way: We Christians do well to remember that we worship the crucified God.

Tolerance, therefore, is not something we should be in the business of. If the church is in the business of anything, it is the Jesus business.

And the Jesus business is run by forgiveness.

Hymn 560 in the United Methodist Hymnal is titled “Help Us Accept Each Other.” It is a catchy little tune of self-congratulation that is indicative of a church that no longer has anything left to say. If Jesus came so that we would merely accept each other, then there’s no good reason for him to die on a cross. You only kill someone when their very being in the world threatens to upend everything you think you know about the world. 

Jesus died on a cross because his existence in the world called into question the powers and principalities that produce a vision of tolerance rather than an ethic of sacrificial love. 

At the heart of Christianity is the proclamation that Jesus loves us even though Jesus shouldn’t love us. We all do things we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we should do. 

The “church of acceptance” leads to the fundamentally unchristian sentiment of “Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin.” We all know we’re supposed to love sinners, that’s what Jesus did. And yet, Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

The distinction is important. “Loving sinners” places us in the position of power in regard to others whereas “loving neighbors” reminds us that we, ourselves, are also sinners.

In the lexicon of the church this is made manifest whenever we gather at the table and 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.”

While we were yet sinners. Not before and not after. But right smack dab in the midst of our sins, God in Christ loves us and forgives us.

That’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we simply don’t deserve it.

Consider the parables: More often than not they end with someone throwing our the ledger book, or offering mercy before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Or consider Jesus’ life: He pronounces forgiveness from the cross, reconciles with the abandoning disciples in the upper room, chooses the murderous Paul to be the CEO (chief evangelist officer) of the first century. 

Jesus knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and the ones we’re proud of), Jesus knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, Jesus knows our self-centeredness, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Jesus has seen all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, Jesus witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, Jesus is aware of our internet search histories, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Jesus is there with us in the comments we leave on Facebook, Jesus hears us when we scream in the car hoping no one else can hear us, Jesus knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps, then, we should change the words to the aforementioned tepid tune in the church:

Help us forgive each other as Christ forgives us; 

Teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace. 

Be present, Lord, among us, and bring us to believe

We are ourselves forgiven and meant to love and live.

On Thinking Theologically

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.

And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”

It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.

On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country. 

Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)

The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.

He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.” 

I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.

We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc. 

And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place). 

The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 

Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.

We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end. 

It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.  

Grace Like Rain

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Greek exegesis of Mark, chapel shadows, resurrection reminders, a hopeful ecclesiology, little deaths, goodness and mercy, church camp, resolution, the great ordeal, unbelief, and prayerful discernment. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Grace Like Rain

Flipped-Turned Upside Down

Acts 9.1-4

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

When I was in seminary I made myself available to friends who were serving churches if they ever needed someone to preach on a Sunday morning. I wish I could say the offer was purely altruistic, but it was mostly born out of a desire to get some experience before serving my own church one day. It was always exciting to arrive on a Sunday morning, to a church full of strangers, and stand up to preach the Word.

But it usually went poorly.

On one occasion I forgot to take up an offering and the congregation was more than happy to not pass around the plates. I preached at one church that had no bathrooms and I was encouraged to “use a tree out back” so I bounced back and forth behind the pulpit until the end of the service and quickly drove to the nearest gas station. And there was one particular Sunday when I got lost on my way to the church, and by the time I arrived they had already gone through two hymns and I was told they figured someone would show up to preach eventually.

But perhaps the most indelible memory took place one Sunday after worship during which a man in a handsome business suit approached me in the narthex and declared, “That Paul sure was in a heap of trouble. It’s a good thing Jesus was there to set him straight!” 

The conversion of Saul, the so-called Damascus Road Experience, has penetrated the thoughts and imaginations of Christians for centuries. It’s one thing to question Jesus’ decision to enlist the help of a bunch of (not even very good) fishermen to spread the Good News, it’s another thing entirely to consider the Lord choosing Saul, the persecutor of the faith, to become the chief evangelist for the faith.

I cherish that narthex comment about Paul because, up to that point, I always thought of Paul being good and fine until Jesus showed up to complicate his life. Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong. He had power and prestige, he even had a calling in his life, and then everything got flipped-turned upside down. It’s also true in our lives that things seem to be well and good until the Lord encounters us and we cannot remain the same.

But, as that man so wonderfully put it, Paul was in a heap of trouble until the Lord changed him. Things might have felt and looked good in life, but what kind of life is it to spend all of your time persecuting others? Jesus said, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Whatever Paul’s life was before Damascus, it could not compare at all to what it was after.

And so it is with us. 

For some the Lord uses a bright wake up call to the life of faith. For others we know no other way because we’ve been part of the church for as long as we can remember. And for others it’s somewhere in between. But the Lord gets what the Lord wants. God is in the business of transformation. We, all of us, were in a heap of trouble until the Lord came to set us free. And now, like Paul, we live in the world turned upside down.

A Strange New World

Luke 24.1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what happened. 

Here we are for the strange and bewildering day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown our Bibles away a long time ago. 

If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when all the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Some of you are here because you can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you desperately want and need to hear Good News amidst a world drowning in bad news. Some of you were dragged here against your will.

So, no matter who you are or even why you’re here, hear the Good News: He is risen! Hallelujah! 

No one saw the resurrection of Jesus.

There’s plenty of art and films and even songs that attempt to describe the event that we are here to celebrate, but the strange new world of the Bible tells us, in all four gospels, that no one saw it. Not Peter, not Mary Magdalene, not anyone.

Jesus was already gone from the tomb when the stone was rolled away.

And perhaps, oddly enough, that’s a good thing. For the resurrection is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend – it comes to us from an entirely different sphere of reality.

It breaks all the rules.

The women wake up on the third day knowing full and well what to expect. They travel to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They’ve run out of tears since Friday, perhaps they even travel in silence, the real and terrible sound of grief. But when they arrive the stone is moved and the body is gone.

And behold two men in dazzling clothes appear and the women fall to the ground in fear and reverence. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They say, “He is not here, he is risen!”

Their rebuke reverberates through the centuries. To this day we still look for new life in all the wrong places, hoping to gain control over something that is fundamentally out of our control.

We still set our minds on earthly things, we seek the living among the dead, but we rarely notice it. We cling to various things in life because life is so uncertain – tomorrow is never promised. So we hold desperately to those things we think give us life. Our jobs, spouses, children, on and on. But things largely stay the same.

So we flip through the never-ending abyss of Netflix searching for a momentary reprieve in a life of monotony, we listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed because we don’t feel like we have enough time between all of our timely events, all while we go from day to day knowing not what we are doing or why we are evening doing it. 

We know longer no what it means to be surprised.

And then BAM Easter!

Easter is the great disruption, the exodus for the rest of us, the beginning of a strange new world.

Kurt Vonnegut said that most good stories occur when a character gets unstuck in time. Our lives, therefore, only really become interesting when the time of our lives is disrupted and unstuck from its normalcy.

The women in Luke’s gospel travel to the tomb with predictable expectations – the dead stay dead. They knew that everything was out of their control, until they heard the announcement that Christians have been shouting throughout the centuries: He’s not here, he’s risen!

No wonder the story ends so strangely – the women just go home, amazed. Easter sets them, and us, on a course from which we leave provoked, unsettled, disoriented. Life will not, and cannot, be the same. But how can we possibly respond to the most unexpected thing in the world?

The tomb was empty, the body was gone. He is risen.

This is the proclamation of Easter and yet, proclaiming the resurrection is so difficult and so challenging because the resurrection cannot be made into a metaphor; it cannot be reduced into a charming story.

Easter is not the celebration of spring, it is not new life shooting up from the soil. It is not a quaint little tale of how love is stronger than death. It is, instead, something completely unlooked for, something without any precedent, and something that leaves us truly amazed. 

Easter proclaims that God is the Lord of disruption. It is among the roads of life, the traveling among the dead while looking for the dead, that Jesus shows up, becomes time itself for us, takes our time, and transforms the cosmos.

All these centuries later, with our sanctuaries and our lilies and our songs and our sermons, it can all feel like Easter is just one more thing that happens to Jesus. But that’s not right. Easter is the happening of Jesus to all things. Jesus doesn’t change on Easter – everything is changed because of him.

Any attempt, therefore, to find a way to make Easter relevant or new or relatable is a fool’s errand because Easter is unlike anything else and the best we can ever hope to do is point toward it. 

The proclamation of Holy Week, the entry into the city, the meal on Thursday, the cross on Friday, the empty tomb on Sunday, they run counter to just about everything else in life – they don’t give us ways to be better human beings, they aren’t commandments about how to make the world more bearable. They are not about what we do, but are instead about what is done to us. And that what has a name: Jesus Christ. 

The amazing part of Easter is that we don’t have to do anything for it to happen.

Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing Jesus to the cross. And, three days later, God gives him back to us.

You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.

Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.

We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we’re in church on Easter after all, we might’ve thought the story was over – that the shadow of the cross was the final word.

But in the strange new world made possible by God, only Jesus gets the final word because he, himself, is the Word incarnate.

On Easter God took the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it the means of life. 

The promise of the resurrection is that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, not even death. Jesus’ pronouncement from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing” frees us from all of our sins, past, present, and future. Easter means that one day we too will rise to join in the feast at the supper of the Lamb.

Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?

The first disciples were amazed by what they saw and heard that first Easter morning.

We still are. 

The promise of the resurrection for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining in, it is everything for nothing.

It is, to put it simply, amazing. 

Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen. 

The Divine Ellipsis

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Resurrection of the Lord [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including McDonalds, Easter songs, champagne, ecclesial delight, the super psalm, good verbs, lectionary podcasts, Adam’s helpless race, commandment keeping, the destruction of death, All Things Beautiful, skepticism, and brevity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Ellipsis

Jesus Saves

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 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. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. 

Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.

Like the year when the palm branches were delivered way too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads in worship, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in sneezing and coughing fits among the people of God.

Or the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received perhaps the greatest Sunday morning comment of all time: “You know, you’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.”

Only they used a different word for donkey.

Or the time when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches and lifting up their hosannas only to begin smacking one another in the face with their aforementioned palms until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and mutter, a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these kids!”

And I think the reason preachers like me like to tell a cute or funny little story about Palm Sunday is because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather confounding.

Put another way: Palm Sunday is perhaps the strangest Sunday of the year.

For, it begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It starts with “Hosanna” but it finishes with “Crucify.” It begins with life and it ends with death.

At they are approaching Jerusalem Jesus sends two of his disciples to procure a colt for his entry into the holy city. He rides in a cartoonish way, with his feet nearly dragging on the ground on either side of the animal, and the people of Jerusalem comes out in droves to see the would-be Messiah. They are overcome with reverence, so much so that they begin to take their own clothing, and spread it on on the road only to be trampled upon by the colt. They make a royal carpet as they worship the King of kings.

They take leafy branches from the fields and they wave them to and fro and they shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Hosanna. I’ve always loved that word. It’s such a churchy word. It makes me think of my own childhood and parading around the sanctuary. It makes me things of the musical masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar and the crowds singing, “Hey sanna Hosanna, sanna sanna Hey, sanna ho sanna hey sanna.”

Hosanna is a wonderful word. And, every Palm Sunday, we reach into the vault of churchy words, we dust off this old familiar declaration, and we proudly put it on display. We shout it in our hymns, we put the word on the lips of our children, we hear it read in the scriptures. And then, at the conclusion of worship, we wrap it up and place it back into the church vault with our other special words only to come back one year from now.

We are familiar with this word. It conjures memories and songs. Churches everywhere will join us in our shouts of Hosanna today.

But do we know what it means?

Save us.

It is a declaratory pleading. It is an emphatic demand.

Save us. Now!

Saved?

That’s a word you don’t hear much in churches like ours. We’re Methodists. We sing and we eat and we sing some more. We try to love each other. Really, we do. 

Love, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Those are our words.

But saved?

How many got saved on Sunday? We don’t talk like that. 

We might make fun of those other types of church that talk in such a way. 

I remember someone once asking me if I was saved, and I said something like, I suppose so, and he said he’d been saved no less than 9 times.

Hosanna! Save us!

Really? 

Well, perhaps we should go look in the Bible for this word, where else does it appear besides Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city that will kill him?

There’s a woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for 7 years. She’s among the crowd one day and she says to herself, “If I but touch the hem of his garment I will be saved.” 

Well, in our Bible’s it says, “made well.” 

But it’s the same word for saved. The same word the crowds cry out as Jesus’ enters Jerusalem. 

And she suffers from more than just her bleeding. She’s isolated, outcast, thrown away by the likes of her family and her friends. She is a nobody with no hope in the world. Until the hope of the world walks past one day and she reaches out. She’s got nothing until she gets saved.

Jesus saves.

There’s a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. Like the woman he is unseen by all because of his inability to see. Forgotten and abandoned. And when the Lord walks by he shouts out, “Son of David have mercy on me.” The disciples are quick to shut him up. The Lord has more important things to do than to waste his time on you.

But the Lord comes anyway and says, “What do you want me to do?” 

I want to see. 

And Jesus says, “You faith has saved you.”

He has nothing to show for anything. He’s desperate. And in a moments notice, he is in the parade of the faith. Dancing and shouting for joy. 

Jesus saves.

There’s a rich man, well to do, Mr. Z they call him behind his back. While his fellows get poorer and poorer he gets wealthier and wealthier. He’s a tax collector. One day he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And the Lord calls him down and says, “Got any plans for lunch?”

They go to Zacchaeus’ house and the crowds are incensed. How dare the Lord go to eat with that sinner! What do they talk about over lunch? We don’t know. We only know that as they leave the house the tax collector is changed. He says, “I will give back everything that I have taken with interest.” 

“Salvation” Jesus says, “has come to this house.”

Jesus saves.

It’s no wonder the crowds grew and grew and grew. It’s no wonder the strange new world of the Bible talks of people leaves their plows in the field and their bread in the oven when the Messiah shows up. 

Because the Messiah is the one who saves.

And there’s no such things as being a little bit saved, or partially saved. It means a total and complete salvation. 

So when they wave their palm branches, when they place their cloaks on the road, they scream for salvation from the only one who can bring it.

Hosanna! Save us Jesus!

Save us, from what?

Jerusalem is occupied, the Roman garrison enters the holy city on the other side. Pontius Pilate comes riding in on a war course while Jesus enters on a donkey. The people of God, therefore, are living as strangers in a strange land in the very land God had promised. Their way of life is fracturing, their faith is under scrutiny, they have no bright hope for tomorrow. 

And here comes the Messiah! The one who makes everything right! He’s saved others and now he’s going to save us. He’s going to give us our city back. He’s going to bring back our way of life. He’s the new king!

The crowds grow and grow, and the shouts of Hosanna echo through the city streets, until they see the cross.

It is strange and not so strange to know that those same people who shouted Hosanna at the beginning of the week were shouting crucify by the end.

It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into role of our own choosing.

It’s all too easy for us to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.

We would still like to see him parade around into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and dreams, to disrupt and frustrate the plans of our enemies.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.

Jesus comes to save us.

He doesn’t enter the holy city to establish yet another political machine that result in one group lording it over everyone else.

He doesn’t pass out swords and shields to storm the temple walls.

He doesn’t even offer programs of personal morality that will make the world a better place.

One of the craziest parts of Palm Sunday is that, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus doesn’t say anything.

He merely rides into the city that will kill him.

But it’s Palm Sunday. We don’t want to have to think about Friday yet. We like the images and the sounds of our children waving palm branches high in the air. But there is no jumping from today to Easter Sunday.

Put another way, we do well to remember there is no resurrection without crucifixion.

It’s in our hymns and in our creeds and even in our prayers, but we try to stay away from the crucifixion as much as possible. And for good reason – it is the sign of our total and utmost depravity. But it’s also the heart of God. 

God, the creator of the cosmos, lays aside almightiness to come and dwell among us in the muck and mire of life, to be one of us.

God becomes vulnerable for us.

And how do we return the favor?

Crucify, Crucify!

Why? Because we want salvation on our own terms. We want to take matters into our own hands. We want to save ourselves. 

We don’t want to be saved in our sins, we’d rather lord it over other sinners who are worse than us. The only problem with that is, according to the kingdom of God, none of us is righteous, no, not one. 

You see, we crucified Jesus not because he was God, but because he was God and then failed to come up to our standards in doing so. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t the one we were looking for.

We’re fine with being saved only so long as it fits neatly into our expectations of what it means to be saved. 

The crowds wave their branches and they shout their hosannas. Save us Jesus, save us! And, by the end of the week, that’s exactly what he does, whether we deserve it or not, whether we like it or not.

Jesus saves.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Even on the cross.

Jesus saves. Amen. 

Beauty Will Not Save The World

John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Lent is such a strange time in the life of the church. 

Yes, during Advent we re-await the baby born King in Bethlehem, which is bizarre in its own right. The author of the cosmos condescends to dwell among us through the least likely of people in the least likely of places.

But Lent? During Lent we hear about sin and shame – the need to lament and repent. We sing songs about death and crucifixion, we gaze inwardly at our wanton disregard for the good, the true, and the beautiful. 

But Lent, contrary to how we might convey it or even embody it, isn’t really about sin and it definitely isn’t about punishment. It is a time set a part to behold God, so that we might see ourselves and all in things in light of God’s devotion to us. 

In other words, Lent is a strange time of good news because in confronting the truth we are able to do away with falsehoods and trivialities. Looking at the cross, and our complicity in it, gives us the space to admit that nothing is as it should be. 

Just here in our local community we’ve seen, over the last week, an entire apartment complex being forced to vacate into a market where there are no available rentals, a student fired a gun inside a middle school bathroom, and a campsite for homeless people caught fire.

Each of these incidents, sadly, can be attributed to our own sinfulness and selfishness. When we care more about our wealth, our freedom, and our clean streets, than the wellbeing of others, we only further prove that we have behaved badly.

And it’s not even just the headlines that we can read in the paper. Lent, oddly, forces us to come to grips with the fact that even Beauty is not as it should be. 

Beauty cannot save the world, at least not in the ways we want it to be saved. 

Our cultural achievements, our aesthetic sophistications, our programs of spectacular morality cannot deliver us from the evil at work without or within us. 

It’s notable how often the strange new world of the Bible and the tradition of the church warns us about the dangers of beauty; beauty tricks us into believing that all is well when, in fact, all is hell.

Beauty is fleeting and finite, and no matter how hard we try and how much effort we put into things, they cannot save the world.

On Tuesday there was a benefit concert that featured the music of Ed Sheehan, Camila Cabello, and other artists that raised over 21 million dollars for Ukrainian refugees. It was a two-hour live streamed collection of performances during which the myriad array of musicians pleaded for an end to the war in Ukraine waged by Russia. 

21 million dollars is no small feat.

But you know what happened in Ukraine? Nothing.

The bombs kept falling. Cities continued to crumble. And families fled out of fear for their lives.

In Jesus’ prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, he arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Mary and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party for the Lord and while their kicking back over appetizers, Mary bends down to the floor with a pound of Chanel No.5, pours it out on Jesus feet, and then she wipes them with her hair.

Judas, of course, jumps up from his seat and puts her in her place, “Woman, what’s wrong with you? That perfume is worth $50,000, why didn’t you see it and give the proceeds to the poor?”

Jesus, ever calm, responds to his soon-to-be-betrayer, “Leave her alone. She bought it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”

Its Lent which means, hopefully, we’re all in a space to admit that we agree with Judas. We know we’re not supposed to identify with him, he is after all the one who gives up his Lord, but he has a point. It’s such a waste to pour out the perfume on Jesus feet when it could’ve been used to make the world a better place.

And Jesus’ words are downright offensive, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

C’mon Jesus! Don’t you know being a Christian is about transforming the world? What a waste! Think about what we could’ve done with all that cash!

It’s embarrassing to hear the Lord speak in such a way.

And perhaps embarrassing isn’t the right word. It’s threatening to hear Jesus talk in such a way. His proclamation here to Judas threatens to upend everything we think we know. 

Our world is built on the assumption that whatever ails us can be fixed by us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is good and right for us to dig deep into our wallets and purses to help those in need. We do have an obligation to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. We need to believe in a better world. We need hope.

But we aren’t the hope of the world. If we were then we would not longer need newspapers to tell us what’s wrong in the world because there wouldn’t be anything wrong in the world. 

Remember: some of the most horrific events in human history were done in the name of progress.

Transcendent hope, real hope for things not yet seen, can’t come from us, it has to be done to us. And that kind of hope has a name: Jesus.

The extravagant gift of the perfume poured out by Mary reveals to us that, unlike Judas, she knows that Jesus in the only hope in the world that we’ve got. She, therefore, can do something wild and reckless because she’s recognizes the wonder of the cosmos sitting at her table. She knows that true gifts, like the perfume and the incarnate One, cannot be controlled.

And, though we can’t help ourselves but agree with Judas, we also know (in some way, shape, or form) that Mary is right. We all encounter extravagant gifts that can disappear just as soon as they arrive.

A choir works for hours and hours only to stand up, sing for 4 minutes, and then it’s gone never to be heard again, at least not in that way.

A teacher does the same thing with every lesson just as a preacher does with every sermon.

Flowers are given in honor, love, memory, and respect only to die and wither shortly thereafter.

People like you and me put our money into offering plates week after week.

Even Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, only for Lazarus to die again in the future.

Why?

Well, love is a strange thing. As is hope. But without them, we are nothing.

Judas rebukes Mary for her waste because she could’ve help the poor. And yet, Judas lacks the vision to see that Mary is helping the poor. She pours out the extravagant perfume on the poorest of all: God in the flesh who condescends to dwell among us. She gives value and worth to the very people that Judas is advocating for.

But Judas has his mind stuck on earthly things – he believes that the only real and important changes can come out of his own goodness and charity. 

Mary, however, has her mind on the divine, she perceives, somehow, that the One sitting at the table is the only One who can ever really make something of our nothing.

Does this mean that we are no bear responsibility for the last, least, lost, little, and dead? On the contrary, this dinner party disagreement is a profound declaration about the role of the church in the world. The world is an absolute mess and yet the church is a constant witness to the value and the worth of those the world throws away like trash. 

Lazarus was dead, wrapped up in a tomb. And Jesus brings him back.

The 5,000 have nothing to show for their faithfulness except the hunger in their bellies and Jesus feeds them.

The 12 disciples abandon, deny, and betray Jesus and he still breaks bread with them and returns to them on Easter.

Wherever the world sees failure and brokenness, Jesus sees value and beauty.

And beauty is a fickle thing. It is often fleeting and wasted. And it will not save the world. But it might make the world a little more bearable. 

Only the world that cannot save itself will be saved by God. And only the beauty that cannot save the world is worth saving at all.

Do you see? In God’s weird and wondrous way, Jesus himself is the nard purchased at a great price, to lavish upon the dying world. As Christ’s body in the world we are called to be symbols of broken beauty for a world that cannot and will not save itself.

We have hope because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. Hope measures the distance between the now and the not yet. Hope is only intelligible amidst hopelessness. Were it up to us alone the world would never ever change. But it’s not up to us – Jesus is the hope of the world.

The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a reminder that, by the end of the week, those feet will be nailed to the cross. Jesus comes into a world that does not request him, nor even want him, because when push comes to shove we’d rather take matters into our own hands.

Or, put another way, when Jesus arrives with proclamations of grace and mercy and forgiveness, with announcements about a new age called the kingdom of God, we nail him to the cross. 

Things are not as they should be. 

No matter how hard we try there will always be more to do. But here’s the Good News: the one thing that needs to be done is already finished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy. Though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon. Though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.

We are freed from the burden of being God. We, like Mary, can do wild and reckless things because Christ is the hope of the world, not us. 

There is nothing beautiful about the cross. It is a sign of torture and death. And yet, for God, it is our salvation. Beauty will not save the world, but God does. Amen.