We Don’t Belong To Babylon

Isaiah 44.6-8

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

 

Years ago I spent a summer working for a Toyota Dealership up in Alexandria. I was a porter and I was responsible for parking customer’s cars, driving them into the bays, and then bringing them back out when the work was completed. Every day I hopped into more cars than I could count and drove with great care through a parking lot that had twice as many cars as it should have.

I loved working there. I loved how every day was different, I loved all the strange and bizarre things people kept in the cars, I even enjoyed the great range of music that people chose to blare through their sound systems. But the part of the job that I loved the most was the people I worked with.

All of the other porters were at least twenty years older then me, and none of them were white. We were quite the motley crew standing together waiting to park cars, and during the slow moments we regaled one another with stories. That summer I learned about Carlos’ difficult journey from Mexico to the United States, I learned about Jamal’s continued experience of racism even though we lived in a supposedly progressive place, and I learned about Michael’s love for his home country of Ghana.

Of all the other porters Michael took me under his wing and always made sure that I was always drinking enough water. He called me Mr. Taylor and would clap his hands when he saw me walking up early in the morning.

We worked side by side for an entire summer and by the end he felt more like a friend than a co-worker.

On one particularly rainy afternoon, while business was slow, I asked Michael about what it was like to live here after spending most of his life in Ghana. He told me about how for years he only dreamed of one thing; saving enough money to bring him and his family to the US. How for years they watched American movies and read American books and they knew they had to do everything they could to get here.

And when they finally saved enough, when they finally came to the US, they were disappointed.

I remember thinking: “Disappointed? How could they be disappointed with all we have to offer here?”

And then he told me that they were disappointed because it was dirty, because there were people in need, and that he and his family still felt like strangers in a strange land.

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Isaiah’s message from the Lord isn’t just some random call from a prophet for the people to know more about God – it comes at a particular time to a particular people in a particular place. These words were, and still are, meant for a people in captivity.

The people of God had grown distant from the Lord and after countless attempts to bring the people back into the fold; they were taken into captivity in Babylon. For two generations God’s people were in a foreign land and it was in the midst of the Babylonian captivity that Isaiah spoke these words from the Lord: I am the first and I am the last, there is no one else like me. If any are so bold as to claim to be like the Lord let them declare what is to come. Do not fear, or be afraid. Have I not told you what was to happen? You are my witnesses!

The people receiving the Word from Isaiah were a people without hope. They had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their faith, their traditions, their roots, their identity, and their sense of belong. The Babylonian empire was known for its power and its majesty, but it was not what they thought it would be. Like my friend Michael from Ghana arriving in a new place, the Israelites were strangers in a strange land. Babylon was a nation with its own roots and customs and gods, and Israel was a tiny nation that had been assimilated into the greater empire.

Every single day God’s people were surrounded by idols clamoring for their worship. But unlike all the idols of Babylon, unlike all of the customs and the experiences, Isaiah declared that only the Lord is first and last, only God calls the future into being.

And to be honest, it is almost impossible for us to connect with the captive situation during the time of Isaiah. We are so entrenched in the culture around us that we cannot even fathom what it would look like to be in bondage, to be chained down, to be strangers in a strange land. But we are.

We are in bondage to the next new thing; in just a few months droves of people will be lining the streets for the next iPhone, Potomac Mills will be nearly impossible to navigate through, and the promise of big deals will cause people to make irrational decisions and choices.

We are controlled by the current political structures that we think determine our lives. Just ponder about how much time we spend watching or reading the news that is now completely and totally focused on who said what, the next vote down the line, and the latest tweet from the White House.

We are chained to economic plateaus that are relatively inescapable. Here in this country we cherish the American Dream, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of us will die in the same economic bracket we were born into.

We think that all of those things determine our lives. They have become our Babylon.

On any given day we will spend more time worrying about a new product, or politics, or our prosperity far more than anything else. Like the Israelites in Babylon, like Michael at the dealership, we Christians are strangers in a strange land. And here’s the frightening part: the longer we spend time in the strange land, the less strange it appears.

I know a man who started attending church later in life and quickly got involved. At first he volunteered as an usher, and pretty soon he was helping to lead worship as a liturgist. He loved church. He embraced the different rhythms and habits of the congregation and threw himself completely in.

And, of course, it didn’t take long for him to join one of the many committees at church. For months he attended the meetings and all of the other activities at church, but suddenly he stopped appearing around the church as frequently until he disappeared all together.

I asked to meet with him to discuss what happened and his answer was simple and hard to hear. He said, “I loved church because it was unlike anything else in my life, but at some point it started feeling the same. I experienced arguments in church meetings, apathy in the pews, and people never stopped lamenting about the past. I came to church to escape that kind of stuff from my life, only to discover that it was here as well.”

If the church is no better than the culture that surrounds it, if it doesn’t embody a different way of being, then it simply isn’t the church.

We are supposed to be strangers in a strange land. While the world around us strives to change our priorities the words of Isaiah ring even louder. While the culture tells us that we have to make it through this life on our own, Jesus tells us that we cannot do it on our own. While cultural idols strive for our allegiance, the Lord speaks loud and clear: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God.

We don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God.

And, as Isaiah is bold to proclaim, our God comes to us from the future. God is concerned about where we are going, whereas we often spend far too much time stuck in the past.

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The Israelites in captivity were stuck in the past just as much as they were stuck in Babylon. Their minds were focused on the old things, the failures of a distant time, memories from days long ago. They needed to hear the good and the true Word of God: “Who else can tell you what is to come? Let them try to prophesy the future. I am coming to you from the future for I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Do not fear, or be afraid! You are my witnesses. Remember what I have done for you, and you will know there is no other rock.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation the people were in danger of forgetting who they were, and whose they were. They wallowed in their present circumstances and were giving themselves over to the idols in their midst. They needed a probing and holy Word from the Lord. They needed deliverance from their chains. They needed to hope for things not seen, they needed to believe, they needed to know that God was with them even in the midst of captivity.

But maybe all this Babylonian captivity stuff is too much for today. We haven’t been stolen from our homes and delivered into a foreign country. Perhaps the talk of idols and nationalism, the comparisons within politics, and the particles of God’s time traveling omnipotence are just too heavy. Maybe we’ve got other things to worry about: bills to pay, people to call, children to raise, a marriage to sustain, a future to figure out. Perhaps we are so deeply rooted in this strange land that we can no longer see it as strange. Maybe our captivity has become our home.

Well then let us all hear the adapted word from the prophet Isaiah:

We cannot save ourselves. We have been and will be saved by God. There is nothing on this earth, or in the entire cosmos, like the living God. No amount of materialistic accumulation, economic growth, or political power will ever bring us satisfaction. Every little thing that we want to give meaning to our lives will fall away.

God, however, is almighty, eternal, and full of mercy. God is the one reaching out to us when we no longer have the strength to reach back. God is the one who surrounds us when we feel completely alone. God is the one who delivers us from the captivity to the Babylons in our midst.

As Christians, we are strangers in a strange land. Everything surrounding us is constantly telling us what to think, how to act, and what to believe. The world tries to tell us who we are and whose we are.

But we don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God. The world’s ways are not our ways!

We are more than the stories of the past. We are more than the failures of the present. We are more than our captivity to the idols competing for our allegiance. We are God’s children.

And our God is an awesome God! Our God is the first and the last. Our God is the beginning and the end. Our God is in control. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God is king of the cosmos. Our God is the solid rock upon which we stand. Our God is concerned with our future. Our God believes in our future. Our God know where we’re going.

Thanks be to God that we don’t belong to Babylon. Amen.

An Altar Call To Dust

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 28.10-19a, Isaiah 44.6-8, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). The conversation covers a range of topics including Little House on the Prairie, Christian time travelers, being scared @#$%less, altar calls, and growing weeds with the wheat. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Altar Call To Dust 

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A Sower Went Out To Sow

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 25, Isaiah 55, Romans 8, Matthew 13). The conversation covers a range of topics including wrestling in the womb, drinking with church people, difficult soil, and the problem with “I think therefore I am.” If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Sower Went Out To Sow.

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If you enjoy the episode or the podcast (or our other podcast Crackers & Grape Juice) leave us a rating and a review on iTunes; it helps us and it helps others discover the podcasts.

A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Psalm 100.3

Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

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In a few days United Methodists from all over the state of Virginia will gather in Hampton for Annual Conference. It is the conference wide meeting for clergy and lay representatives so that we might have worship and parliamentary deliberations in order to discern the will of God. Highlights will include the Service of Ordering Ministry when new candidates will be blessed for ministry, our new(ish) Bishop will address the conference as a whole for the first time, and we will hear from all of the vibrant ministries taking place across the conference. However, there will come a time when we descend into the depths of Roberts Rules of Order, individuals will speak into the PA system just to hear the sound of their own voice, and it will feel a whole lot more like a shareholders meeting than the gathering of God’s people.

And as I have been preparing for Annual Conference this year by reading through the Book of Reports and praying for our denomination, I felt compelled to write the following reminder for anyone attending conference this year (and frankly for any Christian):

On one of my first Sundays at St. John’s 4 years ago, I sat with the Church Council in the Social Hall for the very first time. We gathered that afternoon in hopes of communing with one another such that we could discern what God was calling us to do together. And I started the meeting with this story…

On my first day of seminary the dean stood up in front of the entire incoming class and gave a 45-minute lecture on the ethics of the New Testament. It was interesting for the first ten minutes and then most of us lost track of where he was going. We struggled to listen but everything was so brand new that most of us were more captivated by the architecture in the sanctuary than what was being said from the pulpit. But he ended with these words, words I will never forget, and words I hope you will never forget.

He said, “Why are you here? Some of you think you’re here because you want to teach in college one day, some of you are here because you believe you can save the church, and some of you are here simply because you love the bible. But why are you here? Now, I want you all to pull out a small piece of paper. You might, and probably will, forget most of what I’ve said today, but this is the most important lesson you will ever learn as Christians. I want you to take your piece of paper and tape it somewhere you will see every single day. You can put in on the mirror in your bathroom, or on your computer, or even on your bible, I don’t care where it is just make sure you see it every single day. And on your piece of paper I want you to write the following words: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’”

Wherever you are when you read this reminder, I encourage you to find a piece of paper and write down those same words: It’s about God, stupid. Tape it up in your hotel room, fasten it to the front of your book of reports, put it on your name tag, just do whatever it takes to encounter those words while attending Annual Conference. The UMC does not exist to serve the needs of those already in it, it does not exist to further perpetuate the bureaucracy in which it finds too much meaning, it does not exist to do whatever it takes to keep doors open on Sunday mornings; The UMC exists because it’s all about God!

God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.

And so, no matter what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling this year for Annual Conference, remember it’s all about God.

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Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

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Sin is an ugly word. It is an ugly word because it makes us uncomfortable. When I encounter people in my life who no longer attend church, they often describe their reasoning as “church was only about sin” or “I left every week feeling miserable.” Sin is an ugly word.

It is true that in some churches sin is the focus of nearly everything. But in Mainline Protestant Christianity, we avoid even mentioning sin because of its ugliness. We preachers would rather talk about God’s loving nature than God’s judgment. We would rather tell our people to love their neighbors as themselves than to tell their neighbors that they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard passages about condemnation than reflect on how they are still speaking directly to us even today.

And yet, God speaks through Isaiah to say, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

There are definitely bad ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. Logging on to Facebook in order to belittle the other for their differing political or social opinion might sound like a blaring trumpet blast, but it accomplishes nothing good. Sending anonymous letters or notes to people because of their former lifestyles might feel like “not holding back” but it usually just leaves them hurt and afraid. Judging others from afar with our like-minded peers might feel like “announcing their rebellion” but it will just harden our hearts.

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However, there are good ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. First, we must remember that we too are sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory. Second, we can only speak the truth of another’s sin in love, which is to say, we need to be in relationship with the person to such a degree that they can hear what we have to say without blowing it off. Third, we can only “announce rebellion” if we are willing to help the person to move out of their sinfulness; we cannot simply declare their sin like a trumpet blast unless we are willing to do the hard work of helping them out of it. And finally, we can only announce another person’s sins if we are prepared to hear our sins as well.

The existence of the church is a response to our need to hear about our sinfulness. We gather together to hear the Word so that we might be transformed into God’s people. But this cannot happen if we are more concerned with transforming others, than with transforming ourselves. We cannot announce the sins of another, unless we can first say “Have mercy on me O Lord, for I am a sinner.”

So shout out, and lift up your voices like a trumpet. But beware, for the trumpet will blow in your direction as well.

Devotional – Isaiah 42.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 42.1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

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I need to apologize. At least, I need to apologize to the people of St. John’s who were present in worship on January 1, 2017. We started a new sermon series on “Dumb Things Christians Say” and I decided it would be good to start with “Everything Happens For A Reason.” It is one of those trite and cliché Christianisms that are forever being flung around without anyone thinking about the consequences of such a statement.

I began the sermon with a story and a quote from Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who recently said that “It wasn’t Russia who intervened in the election of Donald Trump, it was God.” I then went on to theologically proclaim the strange tension Christians live in between and all-powerful God and a free humanity; God rules this world but gives us the freedom to act in the world.

The thrust of the end of the sermon went like this: “Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.

But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.”

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Upon listening to the audio of the sermon, and rereading it before posting it online, I realized that I was very heavy-handed with my language about President-Elect Trump, and that I inadvertently compared his election with the suffering of innocent people in car accidents.

What I should have said was that even though Donald Trump was elected by the people of the United States of America, and not by some divine act of providence, God still uses people like Donald Trump to make God’s will incarnate on earth. The beautiful wonder of the Lord is that God works in and through individuals in ways that we can scarcely imagine; a chance conversation, a fleeting dream, a subtle nudge in the right direction. We can have hope in the Lord regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office because we know that God is the one who has the final Word. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection.

Jesus is the servant who God upholds, the chosen one in whom the Lord delights. Jesus is the one who brings forth comfort to the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to pray for our president in order that he may discern how to bring peace and justice to this world in a way that resonates with Jesus’ peace and justice.

Let’s Talk About Doubt – Sermon on Isaiah 7.10-16

Isaiah 7.10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

 

What a strange promise. The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. The promise sounds nice and sweet, after all its part of a lot of the hymns we sign during this time of year. We read these verses and our minds immediately jump to the manger scene with Mary and Joseph carefully cradling the baby Jesus with the animals remaining perfectly quiet and still. But this promise is made to a particular person in a particular moment, and that’s what makes it strange.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation, forces were gathering and attempting to attack and invade Jerusalem. The King, Ahaz, is deeply afraid. And it is in the midst of his fear that God offers the King a sign, any sign that he wants, let it deep as hell or high as heaven. God offers Ahaz any sign he wants so that the king will remember to trust the Lord. Ahaz, appearing quite faithful, says he will not put the Lord to the test (the same thing Jesus says during the temptations in the wilderness), but the Lord ignores Ahaz and proclaims the coming sign nonetheless.

So it is while King Ahaz is shaking in his boots, while troops are gathering at the gates, that he receives a sign of God’s promised presence: A young woman will bear a son named Emmanuel.

Now, let’s be real for a moment: God’s promise of a baby is weird. And it’s rather ambiguous. God does not say, “I will destroy the invading forces with terrible violence” nor does the Lord promise that Ahaz will survive. Instead, God says that a baby is coming to save the world.

I don’t know about you, but Christmas, to me, always seems full of happy go lucky faith without any doubt or questions. Lights are hung up on all the houses, people tune their radios to the Christmas stations, and parents want their children to behave themselves in the Christmas pageants.

But doubts and questions are there, perhaps just barely below the surface of the façade we wear around during these weeks we call Advent.

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Do we doubt? Are we allowed to? What happens to us if we do? More than a few of us will be sitting in the pews on Christmas Eve singing Joy to World and celebrating the Christ-child while we’re really wondering what it means to believe.

King Ahaz doubted. While surrounded by enemies, and offered a miracle by God, he insists on not putting God to the test. This might sound really faithful, but God offers something incredible and Ahaz turns it down. His pious response is more a dismissal of the Lord being able to actually help.

Moses doubted. When the Lord asked him to go and deliver the people from the tyranny of Egypt, Moses quickly listed off the excuses for why he shouldn’t be the one to go.

Jeremiah doubted. When the Lord called him to be a prophet to God’s people his response was quick, “I am only a boy! Surely I can’t speak on your behalf”

Jonah doubted. When the Lord commanded him to travel to Nineveh he traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid what he had been asked to do.

Zechariah doubted. When the Lord spoke to him and told him that his wife was going to become pregnant he did not believe the Lord could perform such a miracle.

John Wesley doubted. You know, the guy in the stained glass window right there. He was asked to go travel to a strange place called Georgia and preach the Good News but he did not have faith. And when he told his superiors about it, they said, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Even Jesus doubted, though only for a moment. When he found himself all alone and nailed to the hard wood of the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we feel like if we have doubts it is the complete opposite of having faith. In fact, many leave the church whenever that first doubt starts to creep in and they begin to wonder about the truth and promises of God’s Word.

I know more people than I can count who, at some point, were devout and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And all it took was a little dose of the dirty word for their faithfulness to crumble. Was there really a virgin birth? Did Jesus really walk on water and feed the 5,000 and bring sight to the blind? Does God really care about our individual lives? Did God really raise Jesus from the dead?

Their entire discipleship hinged on the answer to one of those questions, and when they could not find an answer that was satisfying, they left.

I have friends from seminary who felt called to the ministry but have since left the church because a professor told them something like, “Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible.” Or “Paul did not write the epistle to the Hebrews.” Or “Some of the psalms attributed to David were not written by David.”

            Doubt is such a dirty word. For a long time it has been shunned from the church and treated like a mortal sin. It has been seen as a weakness. But doubting is often a sign that our faith has a pulse, that it is alive and well and exploring and searching.

            Doubt and faith are not opposites.

            You can’t really have one without the other.

We’re now going to try something a little different, something a little strange, and frankly it might not work. But I’m going to leave this pulpit and come down to you and we’re going to talk about our doubts. Now the point of this is not for you to say something like, “I have trouble believing the virgin birth” and then have me completely remove your doubts with some sort of speech. No, the point of this is for us to be vulnerable and intentional with one another, for us to connect as a community of faith around the fact that we have doubts, but that God is big enough to handle our doubts.

So, what are your doubts?

This week, as I was scrolling through the seemingly endless cycle of news from around the world, I read about Russia’s apparent involvement in the democratic election cycle of the United States, and I read about Apple’s struggle to provide Bluetooth compatible headphones in time for Christmas consumers, and I read and read and read.

But then I saw a picture that still haunts me. In the image, a man and a woman are walking through the city Aleppo, Syria. The woman’s face is covered and her husband is cradling their baby in his arms, while holding up an IV bag that’s running down into the bundle of swaddling clothes.

            I’ll admit that what I should have been struck by most was the violence in the background and the terror in their posture, but what struck me the most was how much it reminded me of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Over 250,000 people have died in Syria as a result of their civil war, most of them innocent civilians. And while we fret over the incoming president-elect and whether or not consumer goods will arrive on time, modern Marys and jaded Josephs are doing everything they can to protect their babies.

And it makes me doubt. I read the statistics, I see the photos, and I want to know where God is in the midst of all this. How can the God who knows us by name and has counted the hairs on our heads rest easy while innocent men, women, and children are dying at a rate we can barely fathom?

And while this is happening across the world, Christians in our country are worried about Muslims and are seriously considering instituting a registration of all Muslims. And do you know what’s happening in Aleppo? Christians and Muslims are serving shoulder to shoulder pulling children from rubble, consolidating food and resources to share with as many as possible, and are the remaining sources of light in a city under the shadow of death.

I doubt God’s presence in the midst of something as terrible as what’s happening in Aleppo, but then I have hope when I read about Christians and Muslims working together to bring joy to people who feel no joy.

And so I live in this tension between faith and doubt. We all do. We vacillate between the two like a frenetic sphere in a pinball machine. We doubt and we trust. We break down under the tyranny of violence and are built back up by the very nature of love. We weep for the world and its destructive desires, and are comforted by the God who came down to take on our flesh. We lift up our clenched fists in frustration to the sky, and we hear God speak in the still small voice: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Faith and doubt; you can’t have one without the over. Amen.

 

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