In The Know

Philippians 3.4b-14

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.

5 Ways You Can Help Your Church

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:

  1. Support You Church With Your Financial Gifts
    1. 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. 
  2. Share Information About Your Church
    1. 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.
  3. Contact Someone From Your Church
    1. 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.
  4. Share Your Ideas With Your Pastor
    1. 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.
  5. Pray. Pray. Pray.
    1. 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!

Grace Is For Losers

Matthew 21.28-32

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.

The Faith We Sing

Philippians 2.1-13

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!”

“I believe!”

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.

Listen: 

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.

Their sin.

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.

Resurrection.

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.

(Almost) Leaving Church

Psalm 25.1

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.”

Something To Say

Philippians 1.21-30

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. 

Stop sinning.

Start repenting.

Pray harder.

Do more.

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. 

The Only Thing That Matters

Philippians 1.12-20

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.

Hey, look, I’ll be the first to admit – the conditions… they’re not great. 

At first I thought, maybe they were sending me to one of those white-collar crime prisons. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? They’re the prisoners where they send rich people who stole money from other rich people, where you get to go outside and play tennis a few times a week, have cable television in your cell, and see your family on the weekend.

But, yeah, that’s not the type of prison I’m in.

I thought they’d send me to a nicer joint than this one because I didn’t really do much to get sent here in the first place.

It’s true enough that I was warned in plenty of towns to keep the chatter below the radar. And, to some degree, I understood the concerns. But it’s not like I was setting up insurrections, or inciting violence, or destroying public property.

I was merely story-telling. It’s just that some people didn’t like the stories I was telling.

At the right time, God came in flesh to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Living, breathing, eating, sleeping, teaching, healing, all the good stuff. 

And we hated it.

We hated the Good News because it ran counter to everything we’d been spoon-fed from birth. We thought we knew exactly what we would need to do, and then he shows up to tell us that he was doing it all for us, in spite of us.

Some of us responded by leaving it all behind to follow. Others, such as myself, became all the more zealous to stamp it out as quickly as possible.

But Jesus doesn’t quit.

He moved from town to town, giving people glimpses of a world they couldn’t even believe, and finally, when we’d grown tired of all his goodness, we decided to do something about it.

The whole, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’ got under our skin and we couldn’t let him remain –  he threatened to disrupt all that we had grown so accustom to. So, we hung him up in a tree for all the world to see, and we killed him.

But, of course, this was to happen according to God’s strange workings in the world.

Because even though we killed God, God came back three days later, an empty tomb signified the flipping of the cosmos. And now we’re no longer in the world of our own design, but instead we’re living in the light and grace and mercy of God who destroyed death and canceled the power of sin. 

God, believe it or not, set us free.

Anyway, they eventually caught me and locked me up for being a “threat to society.”

And, as I previously mentioned, though I was hoping for some nicer digs, I’m currently being held in a horrifying dismal cell. And, to make matters worse, they decided to chain me up to a new guard each and every day so I don’t “get any wild ideas.”

Maybe they heard about what happened to me when I got locked up before and the earthquake allowed me to escape…

Nevertheless, here I am. And, believe it or not, what has happened has actually served to advance the Gospel. 

Now, I want to be clear: The fact that God brings good out of evil does not make evil good. The Lord works in mysterious ways, making evil to serve God’s purposes despite itself. In ways both small and large, in ways known and unknown, God has power over sin, evil, and death and is able to achieve God’s own purposes of grace and peace.

Think about it like the great reversal from Good Friday to Easter. That’s at the root of the whole Gospel story.

Jesus, hanging on a cross for the world to see, belittled and beaten and betrayed. There’s nothing good about crucifixion. And yet, God chose to use the sign of death to defeat death forever and ever. 

Because that cross now stands empty to the sky, reminding those of us who follow the Lord that the tomb could not contain him, that he is still contending against the powers and principalities of this life, and that, in the end, love wins.

This is the way God works, contrary to how we might do it were we in charge of the whole operation

The Lord dabbles in unexpected deliverances, in surprising turns of events, in providential happenstances. All of them are echoes of the great reversal that began that first Easter morning. They are foretaste of the world yet to come. They are the bread and the wine at the table, the undeserved invitation, the unmerited forgiveness.

They don’t always fit and fall when we want them to, but when God’s up to something, the best thing we can do is get out of the way and say “thanks.”

Consider my situation: Locked up for a minor offense, derided by some from the local community, and yet I still proclaim God’s grace and peace. Some might believe that my mission has stopped, or that no good can come from all this.

But whoever believes that has forgotten that God works in impossible possibilities – God makes a way where there is no way.

I want you to know that being here has actually helped spread the Good News, so much so that it has become known throughout the whole of the prison staff. And not only that, but my evangelism, that is sharing the Good News, in a place such as this has given others the boldness and the confidence to speak the Word wherever they may be.

Despite my chains, despite my present circumstances, the Gospel is spreading and I remain free as a slave to the Lord. My shackles have become yet another occasion for me to tell anyone with ears to hear about the differences between what the world does to us and what God has done for us.

I might be trapped in this place, but there is a joy in my heart – a joy that only comes from belonging to Jesus

Thanks be to God.

Now, as to how the Gospel has become known… Well, again, its partly a mystery.

I didn’t, contrary to what I’ve heard others do, frighten them with fire and brimstone. I didn’t tell them to shape up or ship out. I didn’t tell them that God will torture them forever and ever unless they confess Jesus as Lord.

There will always be those who proclaim Christ from different, and even wrong places. Some do so out of envy and rivalry while still yet other do so with the best intentions. There will come so-called evangelists who are only in it for themselves or their wallets and purses. And, finally, there will come some in the name of the Lord who want to make other believers suffer for their beliefs.

And in the end, what does it matter?

So long as Jesus is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, it makes little difference. In fact, if Jesus is proclaimed I will rejoice and I will continue to rejoice, because that’s the only thing that matters.

For what it’s worth: I happen to believe that the Good News should sound like Good News. 

So, the other day, when a guard was complaining next to me about his own circumstances (not enough food for his family, fears about not measuring up to his family’s hopes and dreams, worry he will be punished by the gods for his infidelity), I told him the truth. No matter the condition of his condition, One has already come to take away the burdens of this life. 

That, if his family is hungry, they might consider finding a local Ekklesia, that is, a gathering of those who follow Jesus, for they will give them food for nothing. 

Or, if he is worried about his worth, the Lord sees him as he really is, the good and the bad together, and already decided he was worth the cost of the cross.

Or, if the thought of torment for lapses in morality are keeping him awake at night, he need only consider the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, already took and nailed the sins of the world to the cross and left them there forever. 

But, I know other people in this line of work have other ideas about how to proclaim Jesus, and frankly some of them don’t like the way I do it at all. 

If I may be so candid – There are tensions that exist within our community of faith, whether its in your city or in any of the others. Perhaps you already know how hard it is for a group of people called disciples to get along. If someone ever sets out to put a collection of the Scriptures together one day (What if they put these letters in? That would be kind of cool…) you’ll see how quickly people disagree about what it all really means. 

I don’t want to make it seem as if everything is perfect all the time. And, if we don’t find a way to work together, some people in the future might get the bright idea to break up the church into denominations.

And even if all of that happens, if the church splinters, and arguments arise over the Word of God, all of that will still pale in comparison to what God has already done for you, me, and the world in the person of Jesus.

Nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, of course, do everything in our power to squirm and complain and set up stumbling blocks for ourselves and others, and we can make a hell of a mess in the process. But God is the one who both makes us and reconciles us. That means there is no way, literally, on earth or in hell, that we will ever be outside God’s graceful work in reconstituting the cosmos.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus is truly proclaimed, what difference do our differences make?

There’s enough hardship and suffering in this world to argue over petty disagreements. 

The Lord came to save the world, not beat it down into submission for perfect obedience.

The Lord died and rose again that we might have life, and life abundant, not anxiety about who’s the best teacher and best apostle.

The Lord turned the world upside down, the only thing we need to do is live in it. 

So I rejoice, even behind these bars, and I will continue to rejoice! If I am delivered from this bondage, wonderful. But if not, I’ve already been freed from the greatest bondage of all – sin and death.

I thank you then for all your prayers and it is my eager hope and expectation that even through this Christ will be exalted now as always, whether I live or die. 

Sincerely, Paul.

Amen. 

On Breaking The Rules

Matthew 18.21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Jesus loved to speak in parables.

Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.

Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.

Summary: Don’t break the rules.

But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.

The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.

Because this king is a fool.

He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.

Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death. 

Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.

He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. 

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. 

If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.

Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness. 

Giving Up The Kingdom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 14.19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14.1-12, Matthew 18.21-35). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Burn Notice, (no) free ads, impossible possibility, watered life, a shout out to Kenneth Tanner, theodicy, silence as pastoral care, fire insurance, preaching to prisoners, and parable perspectives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Giving Up The Kingdom

Grace Doesn’t Make Sense

Philippians 1.1-11

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God. 

There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.

The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community. 

At least, that’s the idea.

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.

Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.

However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.

Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.

Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes. 

To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.

Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence. 

The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”

The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.

And grace never stops coming. 

It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve. 

And we really don’t deserve it.

We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity. 

But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.

That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.

According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.

And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.

Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.

Is peace simply the absence of conflict?

Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?

For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for. 

Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.

The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).

God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.

Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country. 

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.

For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.

One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.

He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.

And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be. 

But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!

Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”

Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.

Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.

Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.

For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving. 

His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace. 

Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped. 

The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word. 

And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.

And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.

Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good. 

Jesus is our grace.

And that makes all the difference. Amen.