This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Joshua 3.7-17, Psalm 107.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 2.9-13, Matthew 23.1-12). Sara serves as the lead pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Overstory, connected characters, divine deliverance, All Saints all the time, the God who gathers, theological wandering, rules and regulations, and sitting at the reject table. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Isn’t Public Speaking
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground.
The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.
Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.
The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.
It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible.
Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.
And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.
This is no easy task.
For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love?
And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.
Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.
That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.
And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along.
That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.
But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.
Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”
“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.”
The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.
“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.
It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.
And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.
Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor.
Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”
More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.
When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.
When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.
When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.
Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything.
However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn.
We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?
A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”
Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.
Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)
“Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”
Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!
The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen.
But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities.
And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization.
Instead, love looks like the cross.
And that kind of love is dangerous.
The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.
Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.
And that kind of love got Jesus killed.
Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.
We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.
To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.
And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.
It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.
In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it.
Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change.
And, God is love.
Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.
Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.”
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.
Thanks for the advice Paul.
But, have you seen the world recently?
It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.
So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.
They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?
Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in!
Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.
So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.
Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.
Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.
Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?
And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.
Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”
Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.
And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!
If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?
The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?
The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?
That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.
Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.
In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.
After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”
To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”
Again, there was silence.
He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”
A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.
“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”
Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left.
The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.
A few months later the school integrated without incident.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.
To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought.
And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus.
Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends.
But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.
To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.
Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.
That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.
Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.
Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.
Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.
Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.
And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.
Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.
Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.
Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.
In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.
As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.
Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity.
Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.
Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.
Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.
Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.
Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.
We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.
Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
I’m a creature of habit.
Which is probably why I love the church so much.
The church, at her best, is a series of habits that habituate us into knowing more about who we are and whose we are.
For instance, we use a lectionary cycle with particular scripture readings that work in such a way to continually remind us about the nature of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We sing the same songs and say the same prayers because those things shape us in ways both seen and unseen. We follow a liturgical calendar to remind us that God’s time is not the same thing as our time.
And because I’m a creature of habit, the last six months have been quite unnerving.
I’ve lost the regular rhythms of Sunday morning worship with my community of faith, I no longer drive my kid to his preschool and politely wave at the other parents, and I haven’t been able to host friends and family members for regular meals in the backyard.
I’ve created new habits of online worship, and ZOOM hangouts with friends and family, and even Facebook Live Bible Studies, but none of it feels the same.
And yet, there are some habits from before that I’ve kept.
I like to run. Well, “like” might be too strong of a word, but I am a runner. It helps to keep me both physically and mentally healthy in spite of whatever else might be going on in the wider world. And so, regardless of the pandemic and the changes it brought to all of our lives, I’ve kept running.
But, as a creature of habit, I run the same routes over and over and over again.
That is, until this morning.
At 6:30am, under the light of the moon, I set out from my house for a quick little 5k around the neighboring neighborhoods. I made it about 1/3 through the route when I discovered the road in front of me was blocked off due to construction and I would either need to turn around and cut my run short, or turn down an unfamiliar street and hope that I would be able to find my way back out again.
And, for some strange reason (read: Holy Spirit), I took the path untraveled.
It looked just like all of the other streets I run on in the mornings, with all of the houses blanketed in darkness while people are still sleeping, except when I made my way around the first bend in the road I saw a house in the distance that was lit up like you couldn’t believe. And, within a few strides, I found out why…
The house was already (or still?) decorated for Christmas.
I could see a full Christmas tree in the living room window adorned with lights and ornaments, there was a scattering of pre-lit plastic reindeer robotically frolicking across the yard, and there was even an inflatable Santa Claus waving manically back and forth right next to the chimney.
Let the reader understand: Today is the 7th of October, a full 79 days before Christmas!
The creature of habit in me scoffed at the scene this morning. I thought, “Do these people not know the importance of keeping seasons in their season? It was one thing to see Halloween candy in the stores around the 4th of July, but Christmas decorations before Halloween???”
So I kept running, turning my thoughts over and over in my head until I realized that having Christmas decorations up already (or still?) is actually perfect for the time we find ourselves in.
The psalmist reminds us that “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Which is just another way of saying, there’s no season in which God’s love is not steadfast.
The incarnation of God in Christ is a forever and always event, not something to be simply relegated to a particular month or a particular set of decorations. Christmas is now and forever and that’s Good News! It’s really Good News in a culture in which we live according to Presidential Election cycles more than the Gospel of Jesus, when we withhold love from one another because of particular political signage adorning front yards or bumper stickers, and when our habits have all been turned upside-down by a virus.
By the time I got back to the house, and had my theology straightened out, I had to think long and hard about whether or not I should get out my own Christmas decorations. After all, now is the perfect time to remember that Jesus is the light of the world, born to us and for us, and he is the reason for every season.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
A young man was singular in his focus – He wanted nothing more than to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He woke up every morning for years to exercise, he maintained a perfect Grade Point Average, and he wrote letters to his political representatives asking for their endorsements for the Air Force Academy.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he went for his annual physical as a senior in high school he learned that he was colorblind which meant his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were gone. Forever.
A man worked tirelessly for years starting as a dishwasher and eventually made his way up through the restaurant ladder. He did all of this with the hope and dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He saved every single penny he could, crafted the perfect business plan, and finally, after years of hard work, received the bank loan he would need to make his dream come true.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he finally got the new restaurant ready to open, the grand opening happened to fall on the same day that the Governor required all restaurants to close because of the Coronavirus and within a few week his line of credit was gone and the restaurant was forced to close before it ever opened.
A woman lived for her family. She brought her children to church every week, sat with them night after night helping with homework, and was even happy to be a listening ear to her ever-complaining husband. She did all of the right things and was the envy of all her peers.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. In spite of her living for others, putting their needs in front of her own, her husband still ran off with his secretary leaving her, and their children, behind.
The truth of the matter is, sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.
Life is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no guarantee that we can make our wishes come true.
Paul continues his letter to the church in Philippi from behind bars with a reference to those who might offer counter-interpretations to the Gospel as he had delivered it. Like we still do today, he rolls out his resume that those reading might know who they should really trust.
“Look,” he writes, “If you should be listening to anyone, it should be me! Check this: I have more reason to be confident than any of these false teachers you may of encountered. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I’m a member of the people Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews – I’ve never given into the temptation to assimilate to the ways of the others around me. I kept the faith of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. And even more than that, I was Pharasiac in my observance of the Law doing all of the right things and avoiding all of the wrongs. But wait, there’s more! I persecuted the church! I made sure they knew they were wrong while the rest of us were right. I was completely and totally blameless under the Law!”
Notably, of Paul laundry list of qualifications, the majority were given to Paul at birth. That is: none of them were achieved by personal effort nor could they be taken away. They are marks of prestige that came simply because Paul was born in the right place to the right people.
He was born, we might say, with a religious silver spoon in his mouth.
But then he comes to the Law – A Pharisee. This, unlike all the previous qualifications, was not something given to him at birth but rather something he chose and worked tirelessly toward. Being a Pharisee meant observing all of the commandments, it required unending commitment, and it was all about maintaining purity by staying away from anything deemed unclean.
And still, Paul has more to add: A persecutor of the church. Not only did Paul separate himself from all the bad in the world, he attempted to eradicate uncleanness whenever he found it, particularly in the early gathering of people called the church.
As a Pharisee, as someone under the weight of the Law, Paul undoubtedly would’ve looked on the idea of a crucified Messiah as an unspeakable offense, something remarkable scandalous. So much so, that it provoked him to launch a campaign of terror in hopes of rooting out the would-be followers of the one who died on the cross.
And then comes the cherry on top – Blameless under the law. This, for Paul, was more important than anything else. All that he had done, all the rules and dietary restrictions and zealous violence, was done in the name of righteousness, of cleanliness, of religiosity.
“But,” and this is a very big but, Paul says, “whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul’s world was completely upended by God in Christ.
Everything he thought he knew about what was right and true and good and beautiful was turned on its head because of the one on the cross.
Perhaps it was an instantaneous and miraculous deliverance wrought on the road to Damascus, or maybe it took Paul years of re-education to learn the truth, but nothing would ever be the same.
In Christ, Paul discovered that righteousness through ritual observance, or moral purity, don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God.
For, Jesus, as God in the flesh, delighted in eating and drinking and having fun with sinners.
Jesus, as God in the flesh, regularly and routinely went to be with the people Paul only saw as unclean.
Jesus, as God in the flesh, mounted the hard wood of the cross to take away the sins of the world, the very sins Paul was using to judge who was in and who was out.
Paul, with his entire religious resume, was bombarded with a delightful truth: every alternation means to perfection, or salvation, or righteousness crumbles because, on our own, we can’t save ourselves.
Now, on the other side, only one thing matters to Paul – knowing Jesus Christ.
This is a truth that some of us come to discover whether we want to or not. Because all of our righteousness, all of our good works, don’t lead to much of anything in the end. If we could fix ourselves and the world, if we could right all of the wrongs, we would’ve done it a long long time ago.
However, as it stands, we’re still stuck in the land of the dead.
And yet, that where Jesus does his best work.
The Good News of the Gospel, spoken to us today through the apostle Paul, is that no matter how hard to we try to rework ourselves, no matter how worried we are about getting into heaven because of our choices, and our commitments, and our convictions, we are saved and already home free before we had a chance to get started.
Or, to put it another way, God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ will always and forever be greater than our own.
And knowing Jesus Christ, him crucified and resurrected, is the name of the game. To confess Jesus as Lord is to know God in all of God’s humility, coming to dwell among us, to die because of us, and to rise for us.
Knowing Jesus Christ is discovering that all other means to salvation, whether explicitly biblical or not, pale in comparison to what God has already done for us.
Knowing Jesus Christ is resting in the Good News, the best news, that grace is not expensive, its not even cheap, its free.
Paul, writing to the early church, reminds those who want to follow Jesus that we all fall prey to the temptation to see one another through our efforts and our failures. That, when left to our own devices, we delight in measuring the worth of others through outward signs of religiosity, spiritual disciplines, and moral observances.
For, that’s exactly what Paul’s life was all about until Jesus showed up. He relied on the Law to show him what was right and wrong, and therefore who was worthy and unworthy.
It’s akin to how, today, we determine everything we think we need to know about someone else by the kind of job they have, or the car they drive, or by the name of a political candidate stretching across a bumper sticker on the aforementioned automobile.
What Paul was unable to see, that is until Christ blinded him and gave him new vision, was that, under the Law, all of us are unworthy, all of us are in need of help, all of us are sinners in the hands of God.
And, AND, that no matter how hard we try on our own, all of our effort will be like sinking sand when compared with the actual condition of our condition. Our righteousness cannot make up for our sinfulness.
Paul, then, writes to the Philippians because he nows lives in a world constituted by grace and not by works. He encourages them to rest in and rely on Christ’s faithfulness because that’s the only thing they really need to do. All the outward signs of sanctimonious piety don’t mean much when the Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world.
Notice: the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or the select few who manage to accuse a CV as detailed and glowing as Paul’s.
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
The Cross is God’s great and forever declaration that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus which, because he died for the sins of the world, includes each and every single one of us.
In another letter, to another church, Paul reminds the people of God that the Law exists to accuse us, to demonstrate to us what we’re really like until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and liberates us from the curse of sin without a single condition attached.
Or, to put it another way, there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, while hanging on the cross, did not demand improvement.
Jesus, while hanging out in the tomb, doesn’t wait to break free until we all get out acts together.
Jesus, while hanging out by the right hand of the Father, doesn’t guilt trip us into more moral obligations in order to get a ticket into the Supper of the Lamb.
Instead Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in order to rectify and redeem the world, including us, in spite of us.
And the best news of all, Paul reminds us, that even if we continue to rebel, even if we do everything in our power to keep making a mess of things, Jesus Christ has already made us his own!
No mistake, no sin, no disappointment, no failure, and no rebellion can hold a candle to the love of God in Jesus Christ that draws us home and refuses to let us go.
So, maybe you’ve got reason to be confident in the flesh, perhaps you’ve done all the right things at all the right times in all the right places. But all of that is rubbish in the end. The Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
When the pandemic struck, many churches quickly made the leap to online worship in order to keep their respective communities safe. As a pastor, it has been a joy to see so many other churches adapt to the situation, and to witness their worship as I was usually relegated to my own services on Sunday mornings.
And yet, while churches navigate what it means to be the church in the midst of such uncertain waters, many of them are in need of help.
Here are five ways you can help your church:
- Support You Church With Your Financial Gifts
- Consider making an extra financial donation to your local church if you are able. Many churches have had to cut programs and ministries throughout the pandemic because their typical Sunday offerings have diminished while not worshipping in-person. Making an offering to God through a financial gift is akin to Jeremiah’s willingness to purchase a vineyard in spite of not knowing what was coming next – it is believing in a world we cannot yet see because we know God remains steadfast even when we don’t. And, to make matters easier in our present moment, most churches have now enabled online giving through their websites so you can give without have to leave the house.
- Share Information About Your Church
- You can tell neighbors/friends/family members about your local church and how they’ve been able to provide a sense of God’s grace and mercy in a time when the world feels like its teetering on the edge. And, because so many churches have moved online, its never been easier to “share” what a church is up to because all you have to do is share the information on your respective social media pages. The more people who gather for online worship/devotionals, the more churches can create partnerships with new, and even familiar, faces.
- Contact Someone From Your Church
- Our ability to be in touch with one another has never been easier. Whether its sending a text, writing an email, or making a phone call (do people still make phone calls?), making a connection with someone else right now can be the difference that makes all the difference. If you don’t know how to get in touch with someone from your local church, contact your pastor – I am sure they will be delighted to connect you with someone. The tie that binds us together is Jesus, and we need to live into that tie now more than ever.
- Share Your Ideas With Your Pastor
- The pandemic has isolated us from one another in ways previously unimagined. And, because of our respective separations, pastors are not having the normal interactions that help them discern how the Spirit is moving in terms of sermon and Bible Study preparation. If you have ideas for a new sermon series, or a topic to be covered in a devotional, or anything else that might pertain to your church, send it to your pastors. The church was never meant to be a solo endeavor, and sharing ideas with the pastor, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, can bring about some incredible opportunities in the Kingdom.
- Pray. Pray. Pray.
- John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, once said, “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.” If there was ever a time to pray – it’s now. Prayers for your church, for your community, for your country, for the world. As the old hymn goes, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer.” And, if you are unable to bring yourself to pray, reach out to your pastors and ask them to pray for you. Chances are, praying for others happens to be their cup of tea!
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
What do you all think?
There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.
The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.
So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?
The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?
Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?
Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.
Ahead of us.
What must we do to be saved?
It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy.
Do we have to be baptized?
Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship?
What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God?
How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?
That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.
And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.
Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.
I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.
“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.
God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.
Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.
But, what if that’s actually wrong?
And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.
Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.
Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.
But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.
Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?
That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?
Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.
Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.
No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people.
You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.
So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.
We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.
Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first.
We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.
We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.
The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side.
Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.
No one, that is, except for Jesus.
The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery.
But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.
Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.
And we can’t save ourselves.
God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.
Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.
If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection.
In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We might not realize it, but we often “sing our faith.”
Well, at least we did back in the days we actually got together in-person for worship.
Nevertheless, in the United Methodist Church we take seriously the act of singing and how much it teaches us about who we are and who we are.
There are some hymns that, even if I just sing part of verse, you will probably be able to fill in the rest:
Jesus loves me this I know ______
Amazing Grace how sweet the _____
O come, o come, Emmanuel _____
Jesus Loves Me, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1860. I learned it from my great-grandmother who would sing it just about every time I visited her, it’s one of the de facto songs of Sunday school classrooms, and I can even remember it being used in Preschool as a way to get all of our attentions.
But Jesus Loves Me, for all of its lovely qualities, has only been around for 160 years.
Amazing Grace, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1779. It’s ubiquity cannot be overstated. I can’t think of a funeral I’ve done where it wasn’t the number one requested hymn – it shows up in the background of hit Television shows, and I’ve heard it quoted from the lips of more politicians than I can count.
But, even with all the amazing qualities of Amazing Grace, it’s only been around 240 years.
Ah, which brings us to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It’s one of the preferred songs for the season of Advent, it has been covered by bands from the likes of Pentatonix to Sufjan Stevens, and it was written in the 9th century.
It’s over 1,000 years old.
I mean, think about that for just a moment…
Christians have used these words to articulate our faith for a very long time.
The hymn is older than the United States, the printing press, and even Timbuktu!
And there’s something notable about Christian hymns and how they’ve changed over time. For, if you take a gander at O Come, O Come, Emanuel, the hymn is largely about Jesus, and only secondarily about us. That is, those who follow him.
But as the years and the centuries pass by, the hymns start to flip, they focus more on us and only secondarily about Jesus.
It’s why you can tune to a Christian radio station today and the subject of almost every song is us.
“I’m so in love with you Jesus!”
“Our God is greater, Our God is stronger!”
In our singing, we’ve become the subject of our own worship.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, written from behind bars, contains one of the most interesting elements of any of his letters: a hymn.
The so-called Christ Hymn is tucked away here in the second chapter and it predates Paul’s letter.
It’s older than the epistles, it’s older than the gospels, it’s a song the earliest Christians used to articulate their faith.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It might not sound as catchy as something you can experience on YouTube or on the Radio today, but it’s radical.
It’s meant to shock us, this little collection of verse that Paul shares with the Philippians. Most of us, however, barely respond to it at all because we’ve heard it all before.
But listen again to this: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Again, those lines aren’t original to Paul, in fact, the early Christians who put the hymn together got the words from Isaiah 45 which contains one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry.
Idolatry is whatever happens when we worship any of the little g gods in our life rather than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Idolatry is when we hold up a political candidate as if they will be the ones to save us.
Idolatry is when we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives so long as we can keep the economy stimulated.
Idolatry is when we are so wedded to the powers and principalities of this life that we no longer notice the sin we’re in.
So what is it that Paul does with this song against idolatry. Or, better put, what did the earliest Christians do with it? They stuck Jesus right in the middle.
They, to put it in theological terms, violated the Law with the power of the Gospel.
It’s as is Paul is saying, or perhaps singing, “Jesus knew that power and might aren’t things to be taken but instead given up. Jesus emptied himself of all things. Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich. Jesus gave up his royal robes for a servant’s towel. Jesus humiliated himself to the point of humility. Jesus blessed those who persecuted him. Jesus turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, and forgave no matter the cost. And because that who Jesus is, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
And that’s shocking – it’s shocking because the name that is above every name is Yahweh – I AM. It is the One who spoke from the burning bush to Moses, the one who delivered a people enslaved all the way to the Promised Land, the One who turned the world upside down.
Paul mics drops through the centuries this frighteningly Good News – The Lord is Jesus.
John Wesley, founder of this crazy thing we call Methodism today, said that if God wanted to, God could’ve been Sovereign. That is: God could’ve controlled us like puppets and made us do every little thing that God wanted. God could’ve smacked us into shape for stepping out of line or rewarded us with little prizes for making good choices.
But instead, Wesley said, God chose to be Jesus.
God chose to come across the great chasm between Creator and Creature to dwell among us in the muck and mire of life.
God took on flesh, in humility humiliated God’s self to come and be with us.
God became Jesus for us.
It happens a lot in my line of work – the unannounced drop by, the casual (but not really) phone call, the email filled with ellipses. Someone shows up in my life, offers a few remarks that really have little to do with anything, when they finally share what they’ve kept all bottled up.
A wife who’s been cheating on her husband.
An individual who fled the scene after a hit and run.
A kid who made one too many bad choices at a party.
And almost every one of those conversations ends the same way – with a question.
Having emptied themselves of the baggage, having confessed the condition of their condition, they then ask, “Do you think I’m a sinner?”
“Do you think I’m a sinner?”
And one of the great privileges of my profession is that I get to answer that question like this:
“Of course you’re a sinner… but so am I. And Jesus happens to loves sinners.”
What do we really think God is like? Is God angry with us, is God a totalitarian dictator who is willing to torture us into better behavior? Is God keeping a ledger of every little mistake we make in order to determine where we should end up in the end?
Or, is God like Jesus?
Is God the One who, in humility, takes on flesh just to welcome outcasts and sinners?
Is God the One who, time and time again, describes the Kingdom like a wedding feast to which all of the wrong kinds of people are invited?
God became what we are. That’s what the Christ Hymn is all about, it’s what Paul is banging over the heads of the disciples in Philippi – God became what we are.
It is in God’s unending graciousness that God travel into the far country, into the brokenness of this world, our world, which is not God and is so often against God. And God made, and makes, that journey to us, for us.
Jesus is God, says the hymn that has articulated the faith longer than any other hymn.
And, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones.
God says to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you,” even though scripture condemned her behavior.
God says to the sinning tax collector, and the murderer, and the fill in the blank, “I’m feasting with you tonight,” even though scripture calls them unclean.
God says to the thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though scripture claims the opposite.
God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, forgives those who haven’t a clue in the world and those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks and cavorts with the very people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.
Which is kind of the whole point.
God chose to die, even death on a cross, out of love for the sinners we are.
Contrary to how we often discuss it, both publicly and in secret, God doesn’t respond to the crosses we build in this life with more crosses. God doesn’t abide by an eye for an eye. Instead, God’s answer to our brokenness and our sinfulness is Easter.
And that is humiliating.
It’s humiliating because we don’t deserve it.
We worship a crucified God, hanging dead on the cross because we put him there.
And God comes back, to us!
Jesus, whose name is above all names, Jesus is the one to whom we owe our allegiance – the one we worship. Jesus is God. And God, knowing our sin, chose to be with us and for us.
That’s the faith we sing.
Not some version of our own progress toward better-ness. Not some repetitive chorus about where we become the subjects of our worship.
The faith we sing is that God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us. Amen.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.
He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.
I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.
We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.
“So, how did God call you to all of this?”
It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer.
And I’ve heard them all.
Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.
Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.
I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.
Or, at least I thought I was.
Because he didn’t answer my question.
Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”
“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”
“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”
“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.”
“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”
Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.
He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”
“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early fall. Families made their way from the parking lot to the church, children wore matching outfits, and the sanctuary windows were open to let in the cool air.
The preacher paced in his office, looking over his notes for the sermon entitled, “A Love That Forgives.” He was momentarily grateful that the children’s choir would be singing that morning and, no matter how his preaching landed, most people would be pleased to hear the little ones’ voices.
The Sunday school hour arrived and the adults went to their side of the building while the children went to their own. All in attendance that morning examined their Bibles, gleaned from God’s Holy Word, all while also sharing the local community gossip.
Shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, a group of girls were giggling in the basement restroom as they changed into their choir robes.
And that’s when the bomb exploded.
It shook the entire building and it propelled the little girls’ bodies through the air like rag dolls. A passing motorist was blown out of his car, and every single stained glass window in the building was destroyed save for one which displayed Jesus leading a group of young children.
It was Sunday September 15th, 1963. 57 years ago this week.
4 little girls from were declared dead on the scene. Another 20 people were injured by the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church would never be the same.
Martin Luther King Jr. would later describe the event as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So wrote Paul to the Philippians from his jail cell. This is one of the greatest declarations in all of Paul’s letters, and perhaps in the entirety of scripture. It cuts right to the heart of this thing we call faith – life and death are both centered wholly in Christ.
Whether we live or die we are with Christ.
In baptism we are deadened like Christ that we might be raised with Christ.
This, for Paul, is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and he has laid it all on the line in order to obtain it. He writes with such conviction, while a convict, because he knows Christ and him crucified. His life was turned upside down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and he now knows, deep in his bones while resting behind bars, that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him.
Paul, to put a finer point on it, has been assaulted by grace of God. A violent and merciful grace that knows no bounds.
When Paul writes of joy to the Philippian church, a community struggling under the weight of the world and opposition from the wider community, he does so because he has been confronted with a hope he didn’t deserve. He persecuted the early church, derided those who believed in a risen Messiah, and then was offered a position in the evangelism department!
He went from town to town and city to city sharing the Good News with people who had nothing but bad news. Which is why Paul writes of being comfortable with his fate whatever it may be. He knows he belongs to God whether he lives or dies.
And, knowing he doesn’t know what will happen next, he encourages the Philippians to rest in the knowledge that he cares for them deeply, just as God does. That regardless of outcome, God has already overcome the world.
Which is what leads him to the line that, if we’re heard this part of Philippians before, we might know the best: Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.
This solitary sentence, taken out of context, has been used on a great number of occasions to malign Christians for not being good enough. Pastors like me have stood in places like this telling people like you that you’re not living in a manner worthy of the gospel so its about time you started turning things around.
All that stuff.
And yet, Paul’s proclamation about living in a manner worthy of the Gospel is so much more subtle than all of that.
What we read in English as “manner of life” comes from the Greek word POLITEUESTHE (from which we get polis and politics) and it carries political overtones. While, on the surface, it might seem like Paul just wants the Christians in Philippi to behave themselves, he’s actually contrasting one form of citizenship with another.
Throughout the rest of the letter he will continue to hold these two different identities against one another and remind the church that the citizenship of the Christian community is of a higher order than that of Roman citizenship.
Faith and politics have never been easy to sort out and there’s always been disagreement about how they relate to one another.
For the Philippians, it was of crucial importance because everywhere they turned they were bombarded by the power of Rome whether it was through festivals, statues, calendars, coins, temples, and all sorts of other cultural phenomena.
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know the empire seems powerful and that there’s no way you can get away from it. And, perhaps there’s some truth to that. But as disciples of Jesus, if there is a conflict between your politics and your faith, your loyalty is to Christ and your heavenly citizenship its what’s most important.”
The faithful in Philippi, though they live on earth, are citizens of heaven. As inhabitants of a Roman military colony on the outskirts of the empire, they would inevitably come to find themselves at odds with the powers and principalities of the surrounding politics.
For us today, any talk of politics from the pulpit is enough to make us squirm with discomfort. We have been told, even from infancy, that the US was founded upon a separation of church and state which means, on a practical level, that some of us don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit.
Some of us get enough politics Monday thru Saturday that we want a little reprieve here on Sunday morning.
And yet, Paul implores the community of faith in Philippi, and therefore us today, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. To, as the Greek hints, live as if we believe our truest citizenship is with God and not country.
Do this, Paul says, so that whether I’m able to join you or not, I will hear that you remain firm in one spirit striving side by side for the sake of the Good News.
While the members of 16th Street Baptist church were preparing for worship 57 years ago, four white men drove over to the church and planted sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church in order to rain down murder and destruction.
All four of the men were members of the United Klans of America, an offshoot of the KKK, an organization that swears to uphold Christian morality!
It was according to their Christian convictions that they felt compelled to bomb and murder other Christians because of the color of their skin.
3 days after the bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the funeral for the 4 girls who were murdered. In it he said their deaths have something to say to all of us. “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politicians who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Paul says, “Live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
Hearing about the bombing of a church nearly 60 years ago can feel like the distant past. It can feel like we’ve moved on from that stained part of our history.
But things have largely stayed the same.
The last few months of protests have been a ringing reminder that things haven’t changed. And its not just the matters that dominate the news cycle, the unjust murders of black individuals at the hands of the police.
It’s so much more.
It’s in every fabric of our lives from the way pregnant black women die in childbirth at a far higher rate than white women, to black students being punished with higher severity than white students for making the same mistakes, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison.
And yet, even with all of that, a study was published this week by the Barna Group which found that 30% of Christians, that is people who have attended some form of worship in the last month and claim to strongly prioritize their faith, say they are NOT motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice.
Someone, that’s an increase from 2019 when 17% said they were unmotivated.
One might imagine that the last few months of racially motivated moments in this country might change Christians’ perspectives on racial injustice, but when you look at white Christians, the old patterns hold true.
And all of that is further problematized by the fact that more than a third of practicing Christians in the study cited religious leaders, clergy, as the most influential among a list of the type of leaders they are listening to about racial justice.
Contrary to how we, that is those of us who are white, might want things to go, the black church has never had the luxury of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke politically and faithfully when he implored those in attendance at the funeral for the four young girls to see that there would be work to do.
There is still work to do.
Live you life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.
Suffering for Christ will always raise questions about where our ultimate allegiances reside. As the Lord says, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Jesus and racism at the same time. We cannot serve God and white supremacy at the same time.
The life of faith is complicated.
It’s not just about receiving a list of to-do items and then heading out into the world – It’s about catching glimpses of how God has already overcome the world and living accordingly.
It’s not about feeling guilty for all the things we could’ve done – it’s about seeing that living in the light of grace means we cannot remain as we were.
It’s not about keeping our politics and our beliefs separate – it’s about recognizing how what we believe shapes how we behave.
Part of the complication is that we can’t live in a manner worthy of the Gospel – we will always do things we know we shouldn’t and we will all avoid doing things we know we should do.
But we can at least begin by admitting the sin we’re stuck in, and then asking God to help us out. Amen.