This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 1.1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9.11-14, Mark 12.28-34). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cheesy novels, the tenacity of human relationships, relevance, wedding texts, biblical agency, praise, faithful children, bloody hymns, at-one-ment, the words of life, and the end of questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Goes Buck Wild
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
A friend of mine sent me a post this week in which a pastor in Oregon put together a list of ten reasons to join a church – It is concise, full of salty language, and really gets to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today. I haven’t been able to get his list out of my head precisely because so much of what we do as a church is done simply because it’s what we do. That is, we do the work of church without often thinking about why we do that work.
Which is all just another way of saying: “Why would we ever bother to invite someone to church if we, ourselves, don’t really know why we go in the first place?”
So, while caught up in this theological and ecclesiological framework, I decided to put together my own list of ten reasons to consider joining a church. (Feel free to use the list as you see fit)
- The church is a place of profound vulnerability in which rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep isn’t a slogan – it is a practice.
- The church is the proclamation that the powers and principalities of this world do not have the final word about who we are and whose we are.
- The church is a new time through which our lives are structured around the movements of the Spirit rather than the exhausting rat race of life.
- The church is an opportunity to have our finances and our gifts shifted to support people whom we might otherwise ignore even though they are our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
- The church is gathering in which all of our unique identities/gifts/graces can be used for the betterment of creation rather than its destruction.
- The church is the last vestige of a place where we willfully gather together with people who don’t think like us, look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc. and is therefore a remarkable opportunity for real community.
- The church is a gift of a new past in which our mistakes are healed through what we call forgiveness.
- The church is a gift of a new future in which the fear of death is destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- The church is a gift of a new present, a way of life, made possible by Easter in which our practices/habits/liturgies shape us into an alternative society.
- The church is a never-ending source of Good News for a world that is drowning in bad news.
1 Samuel 16.1-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
“True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is known for books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, and other quotes quotes like, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And yet, for a pastor to love the writing of Vonnegut is saying something, considering the fact that he was an outspoken agnostic humanist.
Or to put it a little more concretely, another one of his more famous quotes is: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
I hope the joke was on Vonnegut though, and that he’s now rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, lapping up the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.
Anyway. When I was younger, I came across another quote of Vonnegut’s that, for obvious reasons, has really stuck with me: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”
To me, this quote resonates right now particularly since we can’t actually go to church with the threat of the Coronavirus looming over public gatherings. The church is a people who gather together who cannot gather together right now. And still, the sentiment of the quote rings out whether we are meeting in-person or not. People don’t come to church to hear a preacher ramble on about a particular Biblical text, or offer up droning announcements, or even to say the prayers that they could say on their own whenever they want.
People come to church because they want to discover something about the Lord.
At times, this hoped-for-discovery is concrete – in the midst of uncertainty, people look for solid ground – in the midst of a diagnosis, people look for hope – in the midst of sorrow, people look to the Lord who will hold them when it feels like they can’t hold it together.
But at other times, it’s a little different.
Whether we would be able to articulate it or not, many of us gather as the people called church with one question on our minds: “What is God like?”
And, scripture does not disappoint.
This is, perhaps, why so many people flock to Jesus’ parables; they are all attempts at encapsulating the character of God in a story, such that upon hearing it we might catch a glimpse at the answer to our question.
In today’s passage, the choosing and anointing of David, we encounter the Lord who cares more about one’s heart than one’s outward appearance. If any line from this scripture is known by Christians it is that one. That particular line was even reappropriated famously by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
God, strangely and rather bizarrely, chooses David as the next King of Israel. To bask in the audacity of such a call is difficult for us, because we know what will happen to this shepherd boy. We can’t hear about his calling without already conjuring up the defeat of Goliath, the dancing before the Ark, and the domination of the territories that would result in the power of Israel.
And, more often that not, when we hear this story (if we hear this story at all), the boys of Jesse are paraded before the prophet Samuel and it’s all about David, and why David was selected, and how he would become King.
But this isn’t a story about David.
It’s a story about God.
A God who see more than we could possibly ever see.
A God who delights in making something of our nothing.
A God who delights in choosing the people we wouldn’t, to change the world.
So, why are you tuning in to this livestream? Or, why are you listening to it later? Are you here to hear my preachments? Or are you here because you want to hear something about the Lord?
God still speaks all the time. God speaks to us through Word and through Sacrament. God is made manifest in the means of grace and the hope of glory. God is there in the waters of baptism, with us in the bread and the cup, and with us in our each and every breath.
But God is not like how we so often think.
I mean, imagine God in your minds for a moment… What do you see? Is it an old man with a long flowing beard resting on some puffy clouds?
That’s Hallmark, not the Bible.
God is, for lack of a better word, different.
God is foolish, according to the ways of the world, because God sees something in David, something that no one else could see, not even Samuel.
And that’s because God is different.
God is like someone stuck in between being a teenager and being a full adult. For those of us in the throws of adulthood, I know this can sound a little off-putting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. God seems to make a whole bunch of mistakes, always trying out the wrong people for the wrong job, always seeing the world through a too glass-half-full attitude.
And yet we love to make God into our own image all the time, whether it’s in our art or in our words or in our preachments or prayers. Albert Schweitzer once said that every time we go looking for God, it’s like we’re peering down deep into the bottom of a well, and though we think we see something down there, what we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves.
But if you are brave enough to jump down into the well, down into the strange new world of the Bible, you will find a God who rebukes our desires to make God into our own image.
God is God, and we are not.
Think about it, God is like someone stuck in this never-ending youthful time of idealism even though everything in the world is screaming the contrary.
Who would be the best person to put in charge of the budding nation Israel? Surely a major modern general, or a lifelong diplomatic politician? “No,” God says, “I want that ruddy boy out wandering around with the sheep. The one who keeps whistling without a care in the world. I want the one who will throw it all away because of a rooftop peeping session. I want the one no one else wants.”
Are we sure we can even trust God?
On Pentecost, the beginning of this strange thing we call church, someone had too much to drink according to some people on the street. Furniture was tossed all around in the upper room, and there was the distinct smell of something burning wafting around in the air. People could barely understand this ragtag group of individuals who tumbled out into the busy streets with nothing to proclaim but the Good News of a free ticket of grace.
That was God’s idea of a good time.
One of the best stories Jesus ever told, a story squarely about God, is about two boys who were terrible to their father. The younger tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance and the older one resents his father for not throwing him a party even though he lived in his Dad’s basement. And the father, in the end, pulls out all the stops and throws the party to end all parties for the younger wayward son, and begs the older one to just relax and have a good time.
It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ stories end with parties, often filled to the brim with the lame, maimed, and blind, people with whom many of us wouldn’t be caught dead.
God is all over the place, frenetic in disposition, and often rambling on about new ideas and is constantly inviting us to join the ride. Frankly, God invites everyone to jump on the crazy train that is careening out of the station toward a destination only God knows where.
And on this trip, God notices all the things that we’ve stopped noticing – blind beggars, and widow’s coins, and children willing to share their lunch. God screams for attention and keeps pointing out the mistakes of the pompous, the self-righteousness of the wealth, and the injustice of the powerful and the elite.
God even has the gall to proclaim that only kids get in to the kingdom, and that its virtually impossible for a rich person to get in. And, to make it even more confounding, God rounds that one out with the whole, “But nothing is impossible for God.”
I wonder why no one took the time to explain to God how the world really works. Surely, a disciple or a prophet or even a stranger could have informed the Lord how to behave properly and stay in line. Or, at the very least, God should’ve taken a good hard look in the mirror and decided to shape up.
But no. God just keeps bumbling around hanging out with the disreputable types, spending the morning with the sick and those of ill repute, lunch with the tax collectors, and then late night snacks with the questioning religious authorities.
God shows up with friends at a party uninvited, encourages everyone to drink the good wine, and then rubs hands together until the wine overflows, only to move on to the next venue where God is similarly uninvited.
And, because God behaves this way, people will often approach the Lord at these parties, words will be said, voices raised, and even faces smacked. But does God ever raise God’s voice, does God bring the smack down on those who lean toward violence? In short, does God act the way we would act?
God is like someone who wants to know us better and has plenty of opinions for how we should be living our lives. In fact, God wants to know us better than we want to know God. God never stops inviting us to the party and even though we reject the offer more often than not, the offer always stands.
Some of us have even said, “No,” to God as politely or as emphatically as we know how, and God keeps calling us the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
God is intense, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, and a little too honest. God is always pushing the envelope, testing the boundaries of what we might call “proper behavior.” God is the one who sees a vision of the world that even on our best days we could never properly imagine.
And we wonder, why can’t God just calm down about all this stuff? If God really wants to be the God of all people, wouldn’t it be better it God toed the line and stayed unbiased about the comings and goings of the world? When will God relax and start acting like the God we want?
But, again, the story of scripture is not a story about us. It’s about God.
The Lord saw David’s heart and choose him, even though David would mess it all up in the future. We would hope that God would make better choices than picking a murderous adulterer to be the king of the nation, but then again, God chose to dwell among us and to redeem us and to save us.
And, though it pains us to admit, even though God came to usher in a new vision of the world, even though God came to set us free from our bonds to sin and death, something about God’s attitude and disposition made us want him dead.
God is different. But that’s what makes the Good News good. Amen.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
I try hard to read some theology every week that has nothing to do with the sermon for Sunday. I do this in order to learn more about what it means to follow Jesus without it being intimately connected with whatever will be proclaimed from the pulpit; discipleship is something I need to work on outside of the work required for the vocation.
Last week I opened up Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? and started to read. (I discovered the book through a podcast that mentioned the title and I decided to check it out.) The premise is straightforward in that Fuller wants the reader to confront the totality of Jesus’ identity, but I had a hard time getting through the first few pages. Fuller writes, “The full humanity of Jesus is something every Christian affirms, but when it comes to discussing his journey through adolescence, we like to keep it vague – “He grew in wisdom and stature” is the only mention in the Bible of his teen years. Of course, we don’t spend much time thinking about Jesus having lice in his hair or pooping, even if he did such things in the holiest of ways.”
I understand that Fuller wants the reader to encounter the depth of Jesus humanity, but today we seem to emphasize his humanity over and against his divinity. In church and in theology we hear so much about how Jesus is just like us that we sometimes forget he is also completely unlike us. We want to know that Jesus knows our struggles and is there alongside us when we are going through the valleys of life. But in so doing, we’ve made Jesus out to be a good teacher or an ethical leader, and not God in the flesh.
In Hebrews we read about how “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus remains steadfast to love and forgiveness and Jesus remains committed to grace and mercy. We, on the other hand, neglect to love and forgive others. We forget what it means to give and receive grace and mercy. We change each and every day like the blowing of the wind. But Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Jesus is like us and totally unlike us. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Jesus went through his own angst-filled teenage years and shows us the light of the Lord in the midst of the darkness.
For as much as we want to identify with the humanity of Christ, we also do well to remember that Jesus, like God, never changes.
 Fuller, Tripp. Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? (Fortress Press: Minneapolis. 2015), 2.