Don’t Use God As An Explanation

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“If we ask the elderly to commit suicide in order to shore up the economy for their grandchildren, then their grandchildren won’t have lives worth living.”

That’s what Stanley Hauerwas said to Jason Micheli and myself yesterday over the phone. We had a brief conversation about what it means to be the church in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and how to make sense of it theologically. Additionally, we addressed the lack of analogies for the current situation, what it means to be really connected, and the pulpit of America. If you would like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here: Don’t Use God As An Explanation

Natural Born Sinners

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Ash Wednesday [A] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21). Jason and Teer are United Methodist Pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA respectively. Our conversation covers a range of topics including nasty podcast reviews, 2020 goals, nudity in the Bible, confronting finitude, Frodo and the Ring, failing at Lent, obstacles, practicing piety, Ashes To Go, and the higher bar of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Natural Born Sinners

We Are (Not) Scandalized

1 Corinthians 1.18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sister: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 

I worked hard on the sermon.

I mean, I worked really hard on the sermon. 

At one point I had, on my desk, three different commentaries, a collection of Christian poetry, two Biblical atlases, and my Greek New Testament. I must’ve written three versions of the sermon before I finally felt like it was complete before and I saved the document and patiently waited for Sunday.

And Sunday came.

I walked down the center aisle tightly gripping the sermon in my hand while the congregation sang around me. I sat dutifully throughout the service, listening to the different lay people playing their parts, and when the time came to preach I ascended into the pulpit, took a deep breath, and preached my heart out.

I used my hand emphatically, lowered my voice when I wanted everyone to hang on the words, and I ended with as large and as booming of a voice as I could muster.

When I sat down I had to wipe my sleeve across my forehead because I worked up a sweat.

After the service, I stood in the narthex waiting to shake hands with those in attendance that morning and was feel rather proud of my effort. 

A tall gray-haired gentleman was the first to walk over that morning, and I’ll never forget what he said, “Son, that sounded nice and all, but you used too many of them big seminary words and not a one of us understood not one thing you said.”

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There’s something interesting going on in the budding Corinthian Christian community. Sure, Paul’s already proclaimed grace upon all who receive his letter, and he’s warned them about breaking off into different factions, but here, before we even get to the second chapter of the letter he addresses what we might call, status consciousness. And notice, I’m still falling prey to the temptation to use bigger words than necessary!

It’s not just about who each of the early disciples follow, but to which class each person belongs. (As if people belong to certain classes)

In our minds when we think of class divisions today we rightly consider economic disparities, or even geographical placements, but one that we often ignore (to our detriment) is the division of education. There were some who proudly proclaimed their educational prowess while putting others down and it was starting to create major rifts in the community. 

“I know more than you do,” or “I’m smarter than you,” become more than childish attacks and take on a whole new version of the in crowd and the out crowd. 

Whereas Jesus comes to show us how we were once all in the out crowd, and we are all now in the in crowd.

Paul puts it this way: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debtor of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

In other words, “What makes you think you’re so smart? None of this is smart! God has made the wisdom of the world into foolishness! The religious elite call for signs and the secular folk want wisdom, but we proclaim a crucified man, dead on the cross. This will always be a stumbling block to the religious and foolishness to those outside the faith.

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Now the challenge before us, regarding this text, is nearly impossible – imagine, if you can, having never heard of Jesus or his cross. Imagine, challenging as this might seem, that you encounter someone in your life, perhaps a friend or a neighbor or even someone in your family and they tell you, “The most powerful being in all of the creation, chose to become like us, to dwell among us, and then when the right time came he was executed for all to see, and then three days later he rose from the dead.”

It’s difficult to take a step back from all of this, from a sanctuary adorned with cross, and hymns with language about the cross, and to consider how confounding the cross is. 

Or, to put it in a Corinthian context, it is scandalous.

That’s the word for us today, that’s the thing we cannot ignore, how scandalous it all is. Our English Bibles, of course, render it as foolishness a la the foolishness of the Gentiles, but in Greek the word is SKANDALON. 

Even in their boasting, those that had reason to boast, Paul reminds them that all of their bragging is for nothing because the word of the cross, the truth of Christ’s work, has nothing to do with our own intelligence, or our own wisdom, or our own work.

That scandal is difficult to approach – it is challenging because everything about the crucifixion from the details about the responsible parties to the words offered by those who witnessed the event carry little to no redeeming religious features. 

It is not an uplifting moment even though Jesus is lifted up. Which is strange when we consider just how much of our faith and all that we do as Christians is tied up with inspirational uplift and attempts at making us feel better whether we want to or not. 

So much of what I learned in school, the schooling that was required for me to become a pastor, was all about speaking the right words to make things right in your lives. It was about pushing lay people, you people, to be more faithful. It was about helping each of you to see all that you needed to do in order to find Jesus.

And yet, the scandal of the cross is scandalous precisely because it stands as a stark reminder that we are messed up, and Christ come to us anyway.

It is a reminder that no matter how smart we are or how dumb we are, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how virtuous or sinful, Christ comes to us anyway.

A few years back one of my dearest friends and a fellow United Methodist pastor (and godfather to my son), made it through 8 rounds of chemotherapy to treat his incurable cancer. The suffering involved was such that when he was told that they could no longer see any signs of his tumor he didn’t believe them. That is, until they reminded him that the cancer was still in his bone marrow and would never full be gone. 

He would, and still does, rely on what they call maintenance chemo in hopes that the cancer will be kept at bay.

In the wake of receiving the good news that sounded like bad news but was actually good news Jason, that’s his name, articulated something strange about the whole experience.

He said that even though learning he had cancer meant mourning the loss of the life that he had and the loss of the future he envisioned, so too, paradoxically, finding out that he wasn’t going to die quite yet meant mourning the loss of the life he’d found while living with cancer.

Basically, he kind of enjoyed having the cancer.

As crazy as that sounds, there was a reason for feeling that way. You see, while undergoing those months of chemotherapy and the constant fear about losing his life before he expected to, he discovered that he had his theology backwards. For far too long he had believed, and to some degree articulated, a faith that required people to grow closer to God, a faith in which Jesus suffers for our sins and that’s it.

But what Jason discovered in his cancer was that Jesus joins us in our suffering, that its not up to us to grow closer to God because God is already closer to us than we are to ourselves, and that no matter what we’re going through, no matter how bleak or frightening or terrifying, God is there in it.

In church terms we call it A Theology of the Cross.

Paul would call it the scandal of the cross. 

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Today we might talk about how the cross is a sign of how Jesus saves us from our sins, but what Paul, and Jason, would have us consider is that the cross is where the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ meets us.

The cross is where God meets us in our own lives. In all of our suffering, in all of our sins, in our shames and pains. 

And that is downright scandalous because it rubs against so much of what we’ve been taught to think and speak. If we’ve left church feeling guilty for all the things we should have done, for all the things we left undone, then we’ve missed the scandal of the cross. The scandal is that we don’t have to do anything. Because Christ does the everything we could not and would not do for ourselves.

And even more scandalous is the fact that God in Christ continues to meet us not in the mountaintops of our achievements, not in our theology degrees or perfectly performed prayers, not in our miraculous morality, but in the moments that frighten us and scare us the most.

Paul writes to the Corinthians in hopes of knocking them down a peg or two, he points to the scandal of the cross and reminds those who call themselves Christians that we really have nothing to boast about. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. No amount of education or status or health can fix that fundamental problem within us. Therefore, confronting the scandal of the cross compels us to reorient ourselves into the shadow of the cross. 

All the things we lift up, right education, economic success, perfect health and perfect bodies, have nothing to do with the scandal of the cross. It simply is what it is.

The cross has always been the focus of Christianity. The cross embodies all of what makes the Good News good. And for as long as it has been the object of our worship, it has also caused offense and has been scandalous. Here within the context of our own country, we tend to push the cross out to the margins, away from view, because we prefer a more upbeat and earned and triumphalist version of faith. 

This is, perhaps, because we are so obsessed with ourselves and what we deserve and how hard we’ve worked. We are moved by consumption and instant gratification. We lift up the healthy and the wealthy as the paragons of virtue and idealism. And, the more we do this, the more the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the celebrities of our culture become that which we idolize, and we ignore the plight of the sick, weak, lonely, and poor.

The word of the cross, that which confuses the religious and the irreligious alike, calls we who follow Jesus to embrace the struggle of life, to never turn a blind eye to those around us, and to remember that Christ meets us in the midst of our sins.

It’s scandalous. Amen.

Annie Dillard Was Wrong

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Haggai 1.15b-2.9, Psalm 145.1-5, 17-21, 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17, Luke 20.27-38). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Thanksgiving without a turkey, Hauerwas teeshirts, the Donald Trump of the Old Testament, burying church programs, meditation, looking at the cross, the enemies of God, explaining Christianity, and marriage in heaven. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Annie Dillard Was Wrong

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Get Lost

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Get Lost

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Grace Is For Losers

It started out innocently enough – the Tamed Cynic posted a meme with a quote from someone named Robert Farrar Capon: “God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.” I thought it was good and witty, but forgot about it with my continued scrolling through the strange wonders of the interwebs.

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But then I came across his name again, this time being quoted by my friend Joshua Retterer for an episode of Strangely Warmed. I was content to leave Capon among the great list of “Theologians I Know But Don’t Read” but Josh had the nerve to send me not just one of Capon’s book in the mail, but three.

And when I reluctantly opened to the introduction to “The Romance of the Word” I couldn’t put it down.

Fast-forward through the last six months and I’ve read nearly everything Capon published and it has completely ruined my ministry. His absolute insistence on the unwavering commitment to God’s unending and irrevocable grace has sunk deep into the marrow of my belief and I can’t kick it. Try as I might to end my sermons now with a “how to put this belief into practice moment” I can’t get out of my mind Capon’s fundamental claim that “good preachers ought to be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal all their bottles of religion and morality pills, and flush them down the toilet.” Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than all of our preachments, and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is precisely our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place.

And so my preaching has changed, and it has ruined my ministry. It is ruined because all of the cheap moves I made to get people more involved (or worse: feeling guilty about lack of involvement), can no longer stand up to the unwavering claim of the cross.

I’ve been navigating these new waters for the last few months, and I thought I owed it to Jason and Josh to both thank them and castigate them for introducing me to Robert Farrar Capon. And I decided to record the conversation for an episode of the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast. If you would like to listen to the episode you can do so here: Grace Is For Losers

And, if you don’t want to listen to the three of us talk about Capon, you can just listen to the first part of the episode and hear the man himself preaching at Duke Chapel in 1988.

All Sin Is Unbelief

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [C] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17 (25-27)). Jason and Teer are both United Methodist Pastor and part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The World’s Largest Man, chronicling The Chronicles of Narnia, church birthday parties, the Nicene Creed, good harmonies, inheriting death, the unchurched, drunk disciples, and being convicted by the Spirit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All Sin Is Unbelief

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