If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

Even Us

Mark 8.34

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

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

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

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

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

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

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

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

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

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

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

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

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

Expect The Unexpected

Mark 7.24-37

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

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

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

Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.

Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because none of us deserve him. 

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

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

In other words, God likes crowded tables.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until that night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is the heart of grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place At The Table

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things. 

One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.

And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands. 

Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t. 

So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”

These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.

How does Jesus respond?

“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”

And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:

“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”

It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”

Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.

Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.

Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.

And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?

If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”

We are what’s wrong with the world.

Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.

How can we fix what’s wrong within us?

Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.

Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.

And while some people love it, others hate it.

Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”

It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.

Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.

The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.

The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?

The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.

And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.

There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.

Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.

And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”

A small uproar ensued.

And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.

And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.

What, then, are we called to do?

*Ladder Demonstration*

In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.

Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. 

Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?

The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.

And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.

Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.

The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!

When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.

Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.

In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news. 

There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.

It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!

In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…

Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.

In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen. 

By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

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

Poetry is not my forte.

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

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

But poetry? No thank you.

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

Poetry takes time.

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

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

And that takes time.

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

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

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

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

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

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. 

What’s right with the church?

That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.

The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?

Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.

It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites. 

Or so I’ve been told.

There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!

Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.

Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”

Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”

And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.

So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.

“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”

It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.

I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.

I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”

And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”

What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on. 

The church is broken because it is filled with broken people. 

And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!

There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.

I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.

As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.

I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.

In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences. 

It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.

As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.

Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel. 

Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.

But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.

But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.

The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.

But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.

We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough. 

The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.

That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless. 

The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.

We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God. 

We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place. 

In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace. 

Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction. 

Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.

Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.

What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.

This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.

So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.

And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be. 

How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! Amen.

 

Stuck Together

Ephesians 4.1-16

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. There it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

The prevailing wisdom is that, when a newish preacher arrives in town, he or she should avoid controversial topics at all costs. At least, in the beginning. 

You don’t want to burn any bridges before they have a chance to be built in the first place.

But some things can’t be ignored – some topics demand our attention whether we want them to or not.

I don’t know if you know this, but the church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it really truly seems as if there is no future in which we stay united.

One pastor put it this way: “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count… But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the ways things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belated particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this: “It matters not how we treat people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people talk like that about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences?

Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer hold onto a common cause.

And, lest we grow apathetic about the possibility of ecclesial schism, lives are at stake.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should. So, let me try to break it down a little bit. There is a sizable portion of the church that believes in the institution of slavery is a right given by God Almighty while the other side of the church believes that slavery and the ownership of human beings runs counter to the Good News of the Gospel.

So, friends in Christ, what should we do?

Or, to put it another way, which church should we align ourselves with?

Oh, I seem to have misplaced the notes for my sermon… I think I grabbed the one from 1844 instead of the one for 2021…

You see, the quotes I just read from different pastors were not shared on various social media accounts over the last few years – they didn’t come from the bitterness of recent denominational meetings in which theological dueling has become a favorite pastime. No, all of those are real quotes from pastors in 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And the matter at hand then, the decisive claim that actually split the church until 1939, was slavery.

I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.

We don’t know all the details that required the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, but it’s clear that not all of those who were part of the gathering, the ecclesia, were getting along.

There’s a good chance that it had something to do with Gentile Christians making claims about what the faith really looked like now that they were part of the covenant whereas Jewish Christians were holding on to the faith that had first grabbed hold of them.

Or, it could’ve been a little more like the church in Corinth that was constantly bickering about the nuts and bolts of community meals and how the unified church broke into different factions led by different leaders.

Or, maybe they were arguing about who was and who wasn’t compatible with Christian teaching.

We’re not entirely sure but, taking a step back for a moment, it doesn’t really make that much sense. How could a community founded on radical inclusion descend into rampant division? Why would a people who are commanded to love their neighbors have so much trouble actually doing it? What happened such that brothers and sisters in Christ had to be told to bear with one another in love?

Strange, isn’t it? 

What we do know about the church in Ephesus is that Paul felt compelled to write this letter, a letter we refer to as Holy Scripture, and Christians like us have been gathering together to proclaim these words for centuries.

I beg you to live with humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Wow.

Who would’ve imagined that a scripture text could ever have so much to say to our current context…

And here’s the rub: Paul can exhort us all he wants to be worthy of the Gospel, he can list off in rapid fire detail all of the practical habits that define what the church can be. But, at the end of the day, we will never be worthy of the Gospel.

Never ever.

At least, not on our own.

We’re fickle and selfish little creatures, we humans. It doesn’t matter whether its the first century, or the 19th century, or today, we are consumed by, and addicted to, dividing ourselves into who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. 

And yet, the church touts itself as a bastion of inclusiveness: open hearts, open minds, open doors. Ever heard of it?

Is the Gospel really for all?

I mean, what about those real sinners (let you imaginations run wild)? How would we feel if they started showing up on Sunday mornings?

We might bristle at the thought, but making the outsiders into insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. Which, when you think about it, is actually really Good News because the Gospel is the most inclusive thing around: At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

To be clear: that includes each and every one of us.

And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.

Consider the seven ones that Paul rattles off: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

We who we far off and we who were near have been brought together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Christ is the reason, and the only reason, we can be one.

Warring cultures divided by heritage, and traditions, and moral codes, and even ethical expectations have collided into a new order, a community we call the church.

Paul’s prayer from last Sunday’s passage transforms today into a call to preserve the peace made possible in Christ. Paul literally begs us to see that even our myriad differences, great though they may be, they pale in comparison to the vast gulf between God and us. And yet God chose us!

Think about that for a moment. God, knowing full and well that we are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels, that we will regularly look out for our own interests instead of those in need, that, when push comes to shove, given the choice between life and death, we would choose to nail God to a cross, God still chooses to be for us!

In Christ, we encounter the incomparable new reality of God which both humbles us and exalts us, which knocks us down and builds us up, and that is our peace.

You see, peace, at least peace as defined by the Gospel, comes when we recognize our universal incompetence and our total need for someone to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

God has claimed us. And, as Karl Barth put it, unity is the consequence of belonging to God.

However, there is a difference between the now and the not yet. Our sin-sick souls are stuck in this terrifying cycle of division and antipathy. But, as Christians, we are called to look beyond and, in so doing, reframe the now.

There are walls of division that threaten to divide the church, to literally break up the body of Christ. They existed in Ephesus, they were there in 1844, and they’re still around today.

Paul, across the ages, pleads with us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, something we can’t actually do on our own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And, notably, the strange new world of the Bible reminds us again and again that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus.

The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people willing to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

Faith is always a journey.

Paul likens it to the way a body grows – it happens, in time, and it can be painful. And we can try all we want to resist it, but God is going to get what God wants.

It is therefore in the knowledge of the hope that is beyond our current circumstances that we find our peace. Peace is upon the mountain. We have not yet reached the mountain. But we can lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help comes.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been particularly struck by this little moment in the Gospel right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Abandoned by his followers, betrayed by his disciples, condemned by the religious elites, Jesus carries his own instrument of death to the place called the skull, and what does he say?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The truth is, we still don’t know what we’re doing.

The United Methodist Church, the body of Christ for the world, is at war with itself over who can marry who and who can do what I do. But we’re also on the brink of schism in our community over politics, and education, and a variety of other subjects.

It’s terrifying how content we are to cut off our hands and our feet.

We still identify who is in and who is out based on categories that make absolutely no sense in the Kingdom of God. We view one another through names on bumper stickers, and through ill-advised Facebook posts, and through late-night ramblings on twitter.

And today scripture grabs us by the collar and says, “Listen! God has made us beautifully different! Unity isn’t uniformity! We bring together all of our differences and that what makes the one body we call church so amazing. So stop acting like children for God’s sake, literally. You move about with every new headline, and you give into to such shameful divisions. Listen! Speak the truth in love. IN LOVE! You don’t deserve to be part of the body of Christ. No one does. And yet God chose you anyway! We are not what we can be without you, and neither can we be who God is calling us to be if we keep cutting off our arms and our legs!”

At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever the they are, are wrong.

But again, the Gospel tells us something different – the Gospel tells us we’re all wrong! That’s why the Gospel is more inclusive than anything in existence! We don’t stand on our accomplishments or on our righteousness – none of us are righteous, no not one.

The only thing we stand on is the grace and love of God freely given to us in Christ Jesus.

Or, in other words, we’re stuck with each other because God has decided to be stuck with us. So be it. Amen.

The Mystery of Christ

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. 

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father.

For what reason, Paul?

This is one of the challenges with lifting up these discrete passages of scripture on Sunday mornings and declaring “The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.”

That’s all good and fine, but what’s the reason Paul feels compelled to his knees?

We can, of course, flip back in our Bibles to earlier parts of the letter to the Ephesians and we can read about God delighting in bringing those who were far and those who we near together through the blood of the Lamb, we can read about the riches of God’s mercy, we can even read about the proclamation of peace made possible in Christ, but here’s the real zinger: by grace you have been saved.

By grace you have been saved.

Paul calls this the mystery of Christ.

And what, exactly makes it so mysterious? That God, author of the cosmos, would come to dwell among us, to live, and die, and live again that we might do the same – that’s confounding stuff.

Notice, too, the language – by grace you have been saved – it’s done and decided, without us having to do much of anything save trusting that it is true.

That profound promise, that decisive declaration, is enough to get Paul down on his knees in humble adoration. He’s filled to the brim with joy and gratitude, his cup runneth over as it were, because God has done what we could not have even imagined.

That might be a little tough for us to come to grips with today, with 2,000 years of church history of knowing how the story ends. But during the time of Christ, no one expected the resurrection – not the crowds, not the religious elites, not even the disciples. And yet, Easter is the transformation of all things – death no longer has dominion over us.

By grace you have been saved.

Put simply – The work of God in Christ has made it such that there is no nation, clan, family, or even an individual who is beyond the love of God.

Or, in even simpler terms: even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

Now, I know that seems like an obvious thing for someone like me to say in a place like this, but it’s a rather inconvenient truth for us to swallow. For, it implies that we don’t deserve what we’ve received. And boy do we enjoy the language of fairness.

Well, for those of you unaccustomed, God is downright unfair.

God lifts up the lowly and bring down the mighty.

God has compassion for the poor and sends the rich away empty.

God takes brokenness and turns it in value.

God looks at sin and sees redemption.

And yet, God’s unfairness is riotously Good News! 

Listen – despite how well we might strive to appear on Sunday morning, each of us bring a myriad of secret hurts, private shames, and lost hopes to worship. Our exteriors may display something different, but on the inside we’re all struggling under the weight of the world, and the weight of expectations (those we place ourselves and those placed on us).

And yet, this is what God has to say today: By grace you have been saved! Bring your pain and your shame, bring your fears and your frustrations. By grace you have been saved! It’s not up to you to ascend the mountaintop of morality. It’s not up to you to earn your way through the pearly gates. By grace you have been saved! 

This is the whole of the Bible in a sentence. Whatever else we do, praying or singing, it’s all a response to this profound and mysterious word spoken to us by the Lord.

And in order to hear this Word, really hear it deep in every fiber of our being, we need what we call the church – the great company of those who are willing to listen together – to hear it and receive it. 

It’s not something we can just believe on our own – we need it spoken to us over and over again because, of course, it sounds too good to be true. 

And that’s exactly why we gather together, and pray together, and sing together, and laugh together, and weep together, it’s all so that we might hold fast to the only really Good News we can ever receive.

It’s therefore in the knowledge of the Good News that Paul is drawn to his knees in prayer – in prayer for us.

I pray that, according to the wonderful bounty of God’s glory, you may be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being reminded of the love that meets you where you are. 

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth, and to know the love of Jesus that surpasses knowledge. 

And so to him, who is able to accomplish far more than we can ever ask for or imagine, to him be glory in the church forever and ever. 

Paul prays, across the generations of the church, that we might come to know the immense and bewildering and mysterious nature of God’s love for us.

Remember: the God we see revealed in Jesus is what God is really like, deep down, which is also to say that the God we see in Christ is what God has always been like and will always be like.

What better way can we know what God’s love is like, then, by listen to a story that Jesus tells about himself?

Listen – There was a man who had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family – the little grocery store was passed from generation to generation and the father worked hard for the store and for his sons.

And one day the younger son walks in the back office and says, “Dad, I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

And, strangely enough, the father responds by dividing up his assets between his boys: to the elder hegiras the property and the responsibility of the family business – to the younger he cashes in on some investments in order to hand over his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of the money in Atlantic City. The more he spent the more he lost and the more he lost the more he spent, on women, on booze, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happens so fast that he starts begging the casino owner for work.

“Sure,” the owner says, we’ve got an opening in janitorial services.

The younger son spends the days emptying trash can after trash can and even thinks about sneaking a few pieces of food from the bottom of the bags because he’s so hungry.

And eventually he comes to himself – he realizes that even the employees back at his father’s grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their head. So he packs up the little that he has, and he heads home.

The father is sitting by the front window in the grocery store, listening to his older son bark out orders to his former employees from the back room when, all of the sudden, he catches a glimpse of his younger son walking up the street. And he immediately runs out the door, tackles his boy to the ground, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy struggles to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Would you shut up!” The father yells, “We’re gonna close the store for the rest of the day and throw a party!”

He lifts his boy off the ground, pulls him into the store, and starts barking out orders of his own, “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “Hey Jim, do me a favor, find me the nicest rack of lam we’ve got and start roasting it out back” “Everyone, it’s time to celebrate, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”

The beer caps start flying, the radio in the corner gets turned all the way up, and everyone starts rejoicing in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and the payroll, when he starts to hear commotion down the hall. He looks up in the door frame and catches a glimpse of Jim with foamy beer stuck to his mustache while humming a tune and carrying what looks like a nice leg of lamb and the older brother shouts, “What is going on?”

Jim hiccups and says, “It’s your baby bro, he’s home, and your Dad’s throwing him a party.”

The older brothers fists tightens into a knot and he slams the door in Jim’s face.

With every passing minute his frustration and anger increases. He evens throws the older ledger book across the office, and then he hears a little knock on the door.

His dad steps into the office and says, “What are you doing back here? You’re missing the celebration!”

The older son is incredulous: “I’m doing my job Dad, in case you’ve forgotten. Look, I’ve been working like a slave for you and I’ve never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me! But this prodigal son of your returns home, having wasted all of your money, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

The father doe-eyed happiness disappears for a moment, he grabs his older son by the collar, and says, “You idiot. I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me. You’ve been working for yourself! I gave your brother cash and I gave you the family business and what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by doing what you think you’re supposed to do that you’ve lost sight of what matters.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now! I’m on a roll. Listen – all the matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you? You’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the music! The only real reason you haven’t come to join us out front is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectation that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time, and you’re alive and miserable. Do yourself a favor, son of mine, forget about your so-called life, and come have some fun.”

The parable of the prodigal.

A story we might call unfair…

This story shows us the mystery of Christ – The father chooses to die for us, to give away his whole career and future in the parable, whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. And like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteous snobbery.

The mystery of Christ, contrary to how we often present it in church, is that Jesus came to save sinners.

And notice: Jesus didn’t say he came to judge sinners, or even turn them into non-sinners, he said he came to save us.

The whole of the New Testament, from the parables to the epistles, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ salvation work only by grace through faith – not by frightening people into getting their acts together.

If the Gospel is about anything – it is about how God meets us where we are, not where we ought to be.

In the end, it’s a mystery. It also happens to be the only Good News around. Amen.

The Power of Power

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3.14-21, John 6.1-21). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the buffet of scripture, exvangelicalism, The Me Too movement, agency, ordered theology, prayers of the past, charismatic Methodism, future hope, community meals, and holy moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Power

Beyond Belief

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that your were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with it commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grow into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

It was a warm summer night in Washington DC. Eight friends gathered around a table in the backyard of one of their homes, there was wine and appetizers, and toasts were being made back in forth in celebration of all the good things they had going for them.

“We didn’t want the evening to end,” one of them remarked later.

But around 10pm the festivities came to a screeching halt.

A strange man wandered into the backyard with a gun, he raised it to the head of one of the guests, and demanded money.

He kept shouting for them to empty their pockets and his screaming got louder and louder.

But there was a problem.

No one had any cash.

Again, they were friends gathering in a backyard.

But their pleas for understanding only further aggravated the assailant and they all grew fearful that something terrible, truly terrible, was about to happen.

But then one of the women at the table said, rather casually, “You know, we’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine and join us?”

It was like a switch was flipped in the backyard and everything changed.

All of the sudden, the look on the man’s face transformed dramatically.

He sat down at the table, a class of wine was placed in front of him and he took a sip. He remarked about how good the wine was and then he reached for some bread, and before long he put the gun in his pocket.

They gathered back around the table, with one extra guest, and they continued their evening.

After some time the man said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” 

They all sat in silence, listening to the insects chirping in the air.

And then he said something that no one was expecting: “Can I get a hug?”

One by one, the friends stood up and eventually they were all embracing in the backyard.

Later, the man apologized for what he had done and walked back out onto the street, still carrying the glass of wine as though it was now a part of who he was.

I first heard this story on an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, and the hosts of the pod were quick to cite this backyard encounter as an example what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. Basically, the idea is that people naturally try to mirror one another so if someone is acting really hostile and someone is very calm, one of them will change to match the other, for good or for ill.

But in the church, we call what happened in that backyard faith.

Because faith isn’t just something we have, faith is something done to us.

Put another way: faith is a gift.

Later, when one of the backyard guests was sharing the story with the hosts of Invisibilia, he said, “We had no idea that words – an invitation to celebration – could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like a miracle.”

It was like a miracle.

Why are you here? Some of you are here because you’ve gone to church for as long as you can remember and you can’t really imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you have questions that you want answered. Some of you are here because life has dealt you a raw hand and you’re hoping to hear some Good News. And still yet, some of you are here against your will! Someone else brought you, or dragged you here.

Well, no matter why you’re here, hear this:

Remember that at one time you were without Jesus, you were strangers to the covenant of promise. Remember that at one time you had no hope whatsoever and you were without God in the world.

But now. But now! In Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

What Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, what we proclaim as the Good News in church today about what God has done to us, it should shock us. 

That we, the church, with all of our disparate ideas and ideologies, that we exist is almost beyond belief.

I mean, take a look around, consider even those who are worshipping with us online, we come from different places with different backgrounds, we are different ages and we make different wages. That such a group can gather together to worship God is, in fact, beyond belief, because we do not have to believe in something that we can see.

Even amidst all of our warts and bruises, all of our faults and failures, it matters that we are here.

It matters because we are what God has done.

We don’t know much about the circumstances regarding Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. However, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to deduce that the community addressed was struggling with the stunning and, perhaps unbelievable, revelation that even Gentiles were included in kingdom of God. 

Two hostile groups, Jews and Gentiles, have been brought together by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.

And, notice the language – have been brought together.

It’s already done and decided.

Imagine, if you can, how shocking and bewildering it must’ve been to receive this Good News. That people, namely Gentiles, who had no business and standing whatsoever with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were now incorporated into the promise. 

It cannot be underscored enough how outside the realm of possibilities this was. It was one thing for a first century carpenter turned rabbi to be the Messiah, God in the flesh, the long awaited One. But it’s another thing entirely that by the blood of that One who came to live, and die, and live again that peace could really reign supreme.

We, today, might think that being Christian merely means that we come to church on Sundays. But Paul seems to have a much greater and deeper vision for what the Ekklesia is, and can be. 

Our existence here and now is already radically related to God’s beyond and all that we do and experience is redefined in the light of God’s future because of God’s past.

Hear it again – There were people in the world without promise, without hope, and without God.

We were those people!

But now we are no longer those people because we belong to God. And not just us! God delights in drawing all things and all people into the new reality we call the Gospel.

All of these distinctions between them and us, Gentile and Jew, Pharisee and Publican, unbelievers and believers, outsiders and insiders, they are all upended in the One who is our peace. 

Contrary to how we often act, or believe, we can only become part of God’s family through adoption. No one comes to Christianity naturally – it runs so counter to everything the world teaches us. Christians, as the early church leader Tertullian put it, are made, not born.

Christianity, at its best, is a system of habits and practices that teach us, over and over again, who we are and whose we are. And it really is we. We, who at one time were not part of the gathering, of the ekklesia, received an undeserved inheritance. We had no hope in the world but now we’re heirs to the great fortune we call salvation.

And, again, notice how all the verbs are passive. That is: they convey the completion of God’s action.

Which is rather notable!

Paul doesn’t say we decided to join this gathering, or that we made a commitment to God, but instead he says we were built, we were joined together.

All of this isn’t something we do. It’s something done to us. 

In the church we call it grace.

In the end, we wouldn’t necessarily choose to live this way on our own. And I don’t just mean the fact that we wake up on Sunday mornings to hang out with people we share little in common with except that Jesus calls us friends. But the act of the discipleship, of following Jesus, it comes not when we decide to take a step toward him, but when we realize that he stepped toward us first. 

For a long time it was just assumed that people became Christians simply by virtue of growing up in a place like this. 

Those days are long gone.

We are now strangers in a strange land, navigating the murky waters of an unknown time for the church. And yet, this is Good News! It is Good News because we have the blessed opportunity to really reflect on what it actually means to be the church and who God is calling us to be. 

Being a Christian isn’t natural. It runs counter to the ways of the world. Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? We are different.

However, we have often tried to avoid the differences that make us different. We don’t want to appear strange, or evangelical, or like those other kinds of Christians (whoever they may be). We’ve been content to let our faith be something that happens on Sundays and only on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it’s been unclear why anyone would want to be like us.

Jesus is the difference who makes us different. 

And he is the One who makes it such that we can be here together even though we are different. 

I said in the beginning that some of you might be here because you’re looking for something, but maybe you’re actually here because something (or rather someone) was looking for you.

Again, our text from Ephesians is full to the brim with God’s actions. 

It is God who has called us here. It is God who has made the impossible possible. It is God who has incorporated all of us into something we would never choose on our own. It is God who has destroyed every dividing wall. And it is God who has established bountiful avenues of connection.

Being here, being part of God church, is only possible because God made it so.

I hope you hear those words as a tremendous comfort because, in the end, our relationship with God is not predicated on how we feel, or what we say, or how we act. Our relationship with God is based entirely on what God in Christ has already done!

I know I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to know that not all of us act like perfect Christians all the time. But that’s not the point! The point is that God, who chose us before the foundation of all things, has called us to be part of the unbelievable gathering we call church.

And it is through the church that we come to know peace.

I mean, that’s a stunning claim! In addition to God’s strange desire to bring a motley crew together like us, Paul writes that we can know peace, that we can really know peace because we know Jesus who is our peace.

It happens to all of us, at one point or another. We think we can go about our merry way doing whatever we want whenever we want when, all of the sudden, Jesus grabs hold of us. 

For some, the grabbing comes like the end of a shepherd’s staff yanking us away from our own foolishness.

For others, the grabbing comes through a particular prayer, or person, or proclamation, in a particular moment.

And still yet, for some of us, the grabbing comes through the offer at a table, to sit down and enjoy the bread and the cup because we’re got something to celebrate. 

In the end, part of the witness of the church is to a set of words – an invitation to celebration – that can grab hold of us and change us. It’s like a miracle. And we’re the proof. Amen.