Beginning Again

Mark 1.1-3

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

In Advent, we begin again. 

It’s notably strange that we, Christians, continue to repeat ourselves year after year with this bewildering season. We pull out the purple paraments, we decorate our Advent wreaths, and we start singing tunes about “ransoming captive Israel.” Advent, for better or worse, is a season all about waiting – waiting for the birth of Jesus in the manger AND waiting for his return at the end of all things. 

And, every year, we spend this season living into the tension of the already but not yet. 

It’s just the best.

And yet, Advent can feel like a drag. We hear, week after week, about preparation, but it’s not altogether clear what we are preparing for. Sure, we’ve got to get the lights up on the house and purchase all the perfect presents and send out the color-coordinated family picture, but what does any of that have to do with Jesus?

The beginning of Mark’s gospel starts with the beginning. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He, prophetically, points to the sinfulness within each of us to make sure we know what it is that Jesus is showing up for. He calls us to look into the darkness inside of us, and then points us toward the One who will rectify the cosmos, including us. 

This is no easy task.

Therefore, Advent can be a little frightening as we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the One who shows up to cancel out our sins. But Advent is equally a time for celebration! We celebrate because Jesus has already done the good work of rewriting reality, and we now simply wait for his return and the knitting of the new heaven and the new earth. 

Advent is a time in which we balance out both the beginning and the end all while looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn will break from on high. Advent is both convicting and celebratory. It is the church at her very best.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: 

Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favor: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers…What we are watching [waiting] for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether he wedding present-china has been chipped. God is, instead, the funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch [wait] for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun!” – (Capon, The Parables of Judgment)

So here’s to the season of repentance and celebration where we begin, again! Amen. 

Stuck In Advent

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

In most churches there are two types of people: 

There are those who, seeing the purple paraments and the tree and the wreath and hearing the scriptures about sin, judgment, and wrath think to themselves, “Thank God! It’s finally Advent again!

And there are those who, seeing and hearing the same things think to themselves, “What is happening? Where’s the Christmas spirit? I thought this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year…

Advent, for better or worse, is a habit. And it takes a whole lot of courage and consideration to get used to this season.

Because outside of the Christian community, Advent is just an excuse to speed up toward Christmas – the decorations have been on sale since before Halloween, Black Friday begins before Friday, and just about every online retailer is constantly bombarding all of us with reminder to purchase our presents now before its too late!

Advent, in the church at least, teaches us to delay Christmas in order to rejoice in it fully when it finally arrives. 

Advent habituates us into seeing how the message of Christmas vanishes if we are not willing to walk toward the shame and pain that is all around us. 

Advent reminds us that we need the light of the world because we’re stuck in the darkness.

Which is why Advent always begins in the dark…

Isaiah, appropriately, depicts the stark nature of this liturgical season with a perceived absence of God. 

God, can’t you just come down here and start shaking things up! We could do for some trembling mountains and boiling rivers! We remember the mighty deeds with which you delivered us from the snares of death. And yet, for years and years no one has heard or seen or experienced anything divine except for you, and work in and through those who know what it means to wait. But you were angry with us and our miserable estate. You looked down upon our sinfulness, our wanton disregard for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We’re unclean. All of our supposedly good deeds are like a filthy rag. Yet, O Lord, you are the Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are the work of your hand. So don’t be exceedingly angry with us Lord, and do not remember our sins forever. We belong to you.

The language in our appointed scripture passage is not for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not what most of us are used to this time of year. We’d prefer to hear about hope, and love, and joy or maybe reflect on the theological value of The Grinch, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Home Alone.

And, to be fair, even though it’s not what we would necessarily prefer, the words of Isaiah are already echoed in our living in the world…

Tables were set this week for Thanksgiving with empty seats either because people could not travel in light of the Coronavirus, or because they are part of the quarter of million people who have died in this country because of the pandemic. Our holidays have the potential to both bring out our gratitude and our anger. We can be thankful for what we have while, at the same time, be filled with rage because of how the world continues to spin while we suffer.

In spite of travel restrictions and warnings about gatherings with too many people, airports across the country swelled as they always do during this time of year which has led many epidemiologists to intone – “It’s fine to have a big family gathering right now so long as your prepared to bury someone by Christmas…”

And it’s not just the pandemic that brings all these things into focus. More people suffer from depression at this time of year, more people end their own lives at this time of year, more couples get divorced at this time of year, more car accidents happen at this time of year, I could go on and on and on.

So here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fist to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?”

That is an Advent question.

It is perhaps the Advent question.

This isn’t the easiest stuff to contemplate and mull over at this time of year. I rejoice in setting up the lights on my house, and tuning the radio to the old familiar Christmas hits, and quoting along with all my favorite holiday movies. And yet, to so engage in this festive atmosphere can be a denial of the reality of this life.

Advent, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, requires us to look straight into the heart of darkness. Particularly when we are afraid that we might see ourselves in the darkness.

Isaiah reminds us today that even the best of us are distorted and unclean – all that we do can be compared to a filthy old rag. We, all of us, chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. Whether it’s leaving a nasty comment on social media, or dropping a scathing critique of a family member, to avoiding the apology and reconciliation we know, deep in our bones, that we need to do.

To confess the condition of our condition requires a constitution made possible only by the community called church in which we are reminded who we are over and over again.

We are, of course, beloved children of God, crafted in the image of the divine, fearfully and wonderfully made. And, at the same time, we, all of us, are sinners desperately in need of grace.

That is why we begin the church year with Advent, a season that begins in darkness. We, unlike the crowded ways of life, know the truth of ourselves, that there is nothing good in us, that we all fade away like leaves.

Therefore, the authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness, it is not filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. 

It is, instead, praying for Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us.

Jesus Christ, for whom our hearts long for and are prepared for, is the One who identifies not with the people who’ve got it all figured out, and have the perfect decorations on the house, and have all the presents already wrapped under the tree. 

Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Who, if we’re honest, also includes all the people who seem like they have it all together on the surface. But under our masks, we are all the same – sinners in need of grace.

Jesus, thanks be to God, comes to take on our shame and pain by being born into this world, he shows up in the midst of our darkness, and gives himself up to die the brutal and dehumanizing death of a slave. 

There’s a reason Jesus spent his earthly ministry among the marginalized, because they were those who had been crying out for rectification. 

There’s a reason we nailed Jesus to the tree after all his healing and teaching – no one wants to be told they’re a sinner. 

So we killed God, or at least we thought we did. Despite our best efforts, the grave could not contain the Lord, and he rose on the third day in order to save us from ourselves. He taught the disciples about the way, the truth, and the life, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.

But that is not the end of the story. In fact, it is the beginning of the end. For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people. The church lives in Advent and we are stuck in it. We are a people between, and out of, time. We worship the once and future King Jesus Christ. We live in the light of his resurrection while anticipating his return to transfigure the cosmos into a new heaven and a new earth. 

We, to put it bluntly, are a people who know what it means to wait.

We are ripe with bad news in the world right now. Between the never-ending political in-fighting and civil unrest and an extremely communicable virus, there’s plenty of horrible things happening. And it always seems to coincide with this season we call Advent. But we also have the benefit of knowing the story behind the story. When we pick up the paper, or flip through the news, or doom-scroll on Twitter, we can rightly observe, “No wonder God had to send his Son into the world.”

Because Jesus is the only hope we’ve got.

Our hope won’t come from the world. It will never come from the next political candidate, or the next policy initiative, or the next fiscal plan, or the next diet, or the next pharmaceutical breakthrough. If our hope could come from the world it would’ve happened a long long time ago. We don’t have the power on our own to fix what is in us, despite what every commercial tries to sell us. 

No peloton, no diet, no queer eye makeover can transform us into our dream-selves.

No job, no paycheck, no material possession can fill the hole we feel in the depths of our souls.

No gift under the tree, no light on the house, no curated Christmas carol playlist can cover up the truth about who we really are.

The comfort we so need and seek must come from somewhere else – in a burst of power breaking upon us from beyond us altogether.

The joy of Advent then comes from a different place. It comes from the Lord who chose to do the inexplicable for a people undeserving. It comes from the Son who chose to live by forgiveness rather than vengeance. It comes from the Spirit who chooses to move in and through us even though we’re nothing but a bunch of filthy rags.

God will come again, God’s justice will prevail over all that is wrong in this life, God will fully destroy evil and pain forever and ever. 

Advent, this blessed and confounding season in the church, is all about looking straight into the darkness, its about seeking solidarity with those whose lives are nothing but darkness, all while living in the unshakable hope of those who expect the dawn to break in from on high.

To follow Jesus it to recognize that we are a people stuck in Advent, and the only way out is through the Lord who delights in making a way where there is no way. Amen.

King of The Lost

Ezekiel 34.16

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Christ The King Sunday started in 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it as a day in the liturgical calendar. Mussolini had been in charge in Italy for three years, Hitler had been out of jail for a year, and the Great Depression had rippled effects across the globe. So the Catholic Church decided they needed a Sunday, every year, to remind the (Christian) world that we have our own king and its to him that we owe our allegiance. 

Today, across mainline protestantism, Christ the King Sunday is usually overlooked in order to celebrate themes of Thanksgiving. Instead of reading about the lordship of Christ, we reflect on gathering at the tables and all of our blessings. And, to be clear, that’s all good and fine. However, Christ the King Sunday is a rare opportunity for churches to be unabashed in our convictions about power, allegiances, authority, and a host of other worthy aspects of discipleship.

It is the perfect time to be reminded who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The first time I traveled to Guatemala for a mission trip, we stopped briefly in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche Mayan culture. We were told to explore for a few hours before returning to the van and after I traveled down one too many streets without keeping track of my location, I realized I was lost. 

I decided to try to find a high vantage point in order to get my bearings and I wandered around until I found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps leading to the sanctuary were covered with people resting, and I had to weave my way back and forth until I was at the top.

I should’ve turned around to look back over the town, but something (read: Holy Spirit) drew me inside the church.

The sanctuary was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground under my feet was soft like soil, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings on the wall were nearly impossible to decipher. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I crept closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar.

It was one of the least churchy churches I had ever experienced.

Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I stood before the Lord’s Table. And there, poised in front of me, was perhaps the most pristine sculpture of Christ I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. He stood with robes draped over his shoulders with an outstretched hand and a crown of thorns resting on his head: Christ the King.

What kind of king is Jesus?

In that Guatemalan church I was confronted with what it really means to confess Jesus as Lord. For, while I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard, Christ stood firmly before me as King of the cosmos. In that moment, I saw the paradox of the crucifixion – the King of kings hung on a cross to die. 

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God (in Christ) is the one who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, and binds of the injured. God strengthens the weak and destroys the strong. That is the God we worship, that is the King to whom we owe our allegiance.

And on Christ the King Sunday we confess the truly Good News that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us.

The Waiting Game

Matthew 25.1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was s shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Advent traditionally starts the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday.

Which is basically the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

And, as God’s people in the world, who live and speak his praise, we know well enough to keep holidays, holy days, in their place.

It’s why we sigh and lament when we see Halloween decorations in the store in the middle of the summer, and Christmas decorations adorning homes before Thanksgiving.

And yet, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent. That is, the time in between the first arrival of Christ and his second coming.

There’s never really been a time for the church that wasn’t Advent – and Advent is its best when we see it as the season of waiting.

So today, despite the power of proper liturgical location, we’re going to have a little Advent. Because if Jesus’ parable is about anything, it’s about waiting.

Listen – Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…

The biggest wedding in a century is about to take place, and the whole community has been abuzz. Did you see her dress? Can you believe all the imported decorations? Is that a real band we hear warming up for the reception?

Ten bridesmaids are waiting from the groom, because what good is a wedding feast if one of the wedding partners is missing?

The wedding is scheduled at 2pm, but the bridesmaids have arrived with plenty of time and with all of their lamps. You see, it was a tradition in this town to welcome the groom with a festival of lights upon his arrival but, seeing as how the wedding was supposed to start in the middle of the afternoon, just as the sun prepares to set, they only brought what they thought they needed.

At least, that’s what half of the bridesmaids did.

The other half, inexplicably, showed up with a couple barrels of kerosene to keep those lamps going even though they wouldn’t need it.

But, unexpectedly, the groom is behind schedule. Hours pass and the bridesmaids can scarcely keep their eyes open when finally, at midnight and with trumpet sound, someone declares, “Behold! The groom is here! The time has come to light the lamps!”

The half with the kerosene barrels are dancing and giggling with excited expectation while the other half start bargaining for more oil.

But there’s not enough to go around.

Therefore, the reasonably unprepared crew sets off for the nearest 7-11 in hopes of procuring the necessary flammable liquids.

By the time they return, however, the doors to the reception have been closed, and despite the girls’ best puppy dog eyes and earnest pleadings, the doors remain closed and they hear the groom’s voice from the other side, “Truly I do not know you.”

Therefore stay awake, because you don’t know what you don’t know.

So much for Jesus being a kind and fair Lord, right?

So much for open hearts, open minds, and open doors, right?

So much for a crowded kingdom of heaven, right?

If we’re honest, this parable rubs us the wrong way. We’re fine with a little nudge toward Good-Samaritan-like behavior, we can even handle the subtle hints about the need for forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal family, but who does Jesus think he is telling us that some don’t get in to the wedding banquet?

Notably, the central figure in this confounding little parable is absent. There’s no miraculous gift of talents, or the prophecy of a coin in a fishes mouth, or even the chopping down of a fig tree – The bridegroom is missing and the bridesmaids are waiting.

It’s an Advent story.

But notice, dear friends, before Jesus reigns down judgement upon the foolish and sleepy bridesmaids, the total inclusion of the wedding feast prior to the party’s beginning. 

All ten are part of the wedding party waiting for the party from the very start.

They’ve done nothing to earn their invitation, we learn nothing of their miraculous morality or their gobs of good works, we don’t even know if they were kind to the bride, they’re simply the people for whom an invitation arrived in the mail.

Contrary to how we so love to talk about it in church, good behavior doesn’t save or damn anyone, God has thrown out the ledger book forever, the invitation have been sent out indiscriminately.

What we do with those invitations, however, is something different.

Because, in this parable, there is condemnation. But the condemnation only comes for those who trusted in themselves and in the world more than the Lord.

And, though this certainly ruffles feathers, it’s sound theology.

After all, when salvation by faith alone is proclaimed (when we say things like we don’t have to do anything because Jesus has done everything) it feels like salvation has been made too easy. It means that anybody could get in for nothing. 

Faith, then, is belittled to mere mental assent, and we can’t help ourselves from wondering, “If the real work is already done, if we’re already saved, then why should we try to be good, or kind, or loving?” And “If the world is saved in its sin, then why shouldn’t we keep on sinning?”

But, faith isn’t just some decision we make in our brains. Faith is all the intricacies within a trust-relationship with a person – Jesus. And being in relationship means we will always be doing something, not just thinking some things.

Therefore, the question would be better positioned like this: “Since Jesus, through his life-death-resurrection, has already invited me to the Supper of the Lamb, why shouldn’t I live as if I’m already at the party?”

We don’t have to do anything to get in, that’s Jesus department. But as invited members to the wedding feast, it’s good and right for us to live into that joyous celebration now in anticipation of then. 

As to the question of continuing in sin, part of the problem is, no matter what, we’re going to keep on sinning. Sin is not really something we have any choice about. Sin is very much who we are. 

Sure, we might be able to kick some of our bad habits, but we won’t be able to ditch the root of the problem. No matter how good or bad we are, all of us choose to do things we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

The expression “nobody’s perfect” is meant to comfort us when we mess up. But it’s also just true – nobody’s perfect.

And yet, in spite of our imperfection, God sees fit to hand us a new creation gratis and invites us to live as if we trust that gift. 

That trust is what we, in the church, call faith. And faith is a gift – there’s no easy answer as to why some of us trust the Lord better than, or more than, others. Except, perhaps, by what Jesus offers us in the parable in question. But faith is a gift, offered freely to all. God, however, will not force us to accept this gift.

And its here, in recognition of the gift of God, that we start to squirm in our seats. Because, apparently, in spite of God’s total desire for salvation for the cosmos, there is a moment when the present will come into contact with God’s divine reality and the party will begin.

But there is no space at the party for party poopers.

All of the parables point to God’s graceful and grace-filled actions in the world. And here, in a parable of judgment, God will triumph in bringing the party to fruition while also separating those who rejoice in the mystery from those who are hellbent on keeping things the same.

Which leads us back to the parable.

Ten girls are on their way to a party, tickled to death for having been invited in the first place. 

Five of them are wise, five of them are foolish.

Pause – let us consider, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.”

Okay, the foolish bridesmaids are those who are wise according to the ways of the world. And the wise bridesmaids represent the wisdom of faith which means trusting in the foolishness of the cross. 

But for now, they all have what they need – an invitation.

The foolish, though, took lamps with them but no oil. They are those who live according to the logic of the world and what should happen. They are a bunch of happy winners, rejoicing in their win streak, who believe that their good fortune will always hold out because it always has.

These five foolish bridesmaids, knowing its a daytime wedding, reasonably assume they have no need of extra oil – they are rather sensible in their preparation.

The the other five, the so-called wise bridesmaids, insist on lugging around a bunch of kerosene, just in case – nothing could be more dumb. They have complicated their lives by preparing for nothing. They’ve packed their parka for a trip to the beach, and a bathing suit for their trip to the arctic.

And this is when the parable becomes a parable – something goes wrong.

The bridegroom is late, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep.

BOOM the clock strikes 12, and Behold, the Bridegroom, finally, arrives!

The unexpected happens, just like it does in life and in the strange new world of the Bible.

The bridesmaids, even in their dozing off, have done what all Christians do – they wait.

For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people – We wait, in faith, and it is in our waiting that all the good work of the kingdom comes to fruition.

Because waiting is all we have to do – whether we’re like Peter or Judas, if God really does take away the sins of the world, then all we need is faith to accept the invitation of waiting for the party.

The bridesmaids wake up, and they get to work. However, half of them discover they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. They don’t have enough because they never believed they would need it. 

In the end, it comes down to trusting in something that is foolish to the world and wise in the Kingdom of God.

The foolish girls run off to buy more oil, at midnight no less, but it is too late. When they return, the door to the party is closed.

The shut door is an image that us well-meaning Christians don’t particularly enjoy, but it is God’s answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. For, in the death of Jesus, God closed forever the ways of winning and rightness. 

But the wise bridesmaids, those who are foolish in the eyes of the world, who were willing to trust God more than themselves, were found in their lastness, leastness, lostness, and even deadness to rejoice and celebrate at the party. 

And all of the do-gooders who were so sure they could save themselves when it really came down to it, they’re stuck out in the dark with an unusable invitation.

God is a God of judgment, but it is not a judgment based on the political meritocracy that we find in the world, it’s not a judgment of who is good enough, it is a judgment of trust. 

Are we willing to rejoice in the knowledge that we get invited even though we don’t deserve it?

Or, do we want to believe that we can make the case for our own deserving even though we deserve nothing?

“Keep alert,” Jesus says at the end, “Because you don’t know when the waiting will end.”

This parable can frighten, and it can confound, but when we come to the conclusion the most appropriate response is, strangely, to laugh (if we can).

We laugh because the thing we’re waiting for is a party!

And that party is not some exclusive club in the hippest part of town with a giant bouncer holding a tiny list of VIPs. The party is already here in Christ who delights in bringing the party to us rather than waiting for us to earn our way in.

I then end with these all too important words from Robert Farrar Capon, “God is not our mother-in-law coming to see if her wedding-present china has been used, or if it has been chipped. God is our funny old uncle who shows up with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”

Jesus is the life of the party and he wants a big crowd – the only thing we need to do is trust in him, nothing more, less, or else. Amen. 

The Most Important Election In History

Matthew 23.1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus wasn’t a very good politician. 

At least, he did not seem to understand that there are some things you don’t do or say if you want to create more followers and supporters.

Perhaps things would’ve been better for the Lord had he been a little more careful with his words, or if he had hired the right campaign manager, or, at the very least, if he had a better social media presence.

But speaking directly, without equivocation, seemed to be Jesus’ favorite thing to do.

At times he told the crowds that they would have to hate their mothers and brothers and fathers and sisters if they wanted to follow him. He waxed lyrical about how his way of running things included going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and even praying for one’s enemies.

But now he sets his sights on the opposition.

Listen – You see all these people in positions of power? The religious elites and the judges and the leaders? The sit in place of authority so you can listen to them all you want, but don’t you dare do what they do. Look at how they place undue burdens on the last, least, lost, little, and dead all while they refuse to lift a finger for anyone. All they care about is being seen by others, that’s why they dress the way they do and smile the way they do. Have you ever noticed how they pick the places of honor for themselves while in public? Don’t be like those fools! You already have one teacher. Don’t bow down to worship those who desire your allegiance. You already have a Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. And all who seek to exalt themselves will be brought low, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

That Jesus could speak so radically and truthfully to power is a profound indication that he was not hoping to win over the so-called undecideds. 

Jesus, our Lord, held offices of power from the people called Israel – Prophet, Priest, King.

The notable things about prophets, priests, and kings is that no one become those thing by winning an election, or by getting enough people on their side, or by convincing folk that they’re the lesser of two evils. 

The authority from which Jesus speaks in this passage (an authority that those around him were constantly questioning) comes from simply being who he is, and not from climbing up all the different rungs on all the political ladders.

If Jesus sounds like anything here, he sounds like a revolutionary – calling out those in the places of power for abusing their power.

However, rather than taking the traditional route of revolutionary revolts by equipping the masses to overthrow their overlords, he puts everyone in their place – form the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top. 

And this is who Jesus is – he is truth and he speaks truth. 

The uncomfortable truth from truth is this: in the end, no one will be more humbled than Jesus and no one will be more exalted than Jesus.

So we can take the Lord’s words and we can string them around however we want to knock people down for being too high, or bring people up who have been to low. But ultimately these words are not about us, they’re about Jesus. 

Jesus is the greatest among us having been humbled by our rejection, only to be exalted in the resurrection.

And this is how the Lord rules – not from the politics of parliament, not from overtures in the Oval Office, but from the Cross.

Jesus, unlike us, never had the benefit of reading How To Win Friends And Influence People, he didn’t take classes at the local junior college on proper public speaking, he didn’t submit an op-ed to the Jerusalem Times about the need for new leadership.

Jesus is different.

He doesn’t work in the art of persuasive discourse, nor does he roll out all the relevant statistics about policy initiatives, he doesn’t even rely on simple and easily explainable stories to demonstrate why he should be the Messiah.

Instead, Jesus is who he is and he trusts that those in the know will see and hear him because he is truth incarnate.

Oddly enough, compared with how we so often assume power is supposed to work these days, Jesus never really tells the crowds what they, or we, want to hear.

Instead of promising to defeat all of our enemies, Jesus tells us to pray for them,

Instead of offering us health and wealth, Jesus tells us that if we lose our lives we will gain them.

Instead of pointing to a day in the future when things will finally be fixed, Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is already here in him.

This weeks sees yet another presidential election in the United States. When all is said and done we, as a country, will have spent more than 10 billion dollars during this particular election cycle.

That’s billion with a b.

Which is a 50% increase over the election in 2016 and there’s no sign that our political spending will be slowing down any time soon.

And with all of that money, we’ve been told again and again and again that this is the more important election in history. It’s all we can see and read on Twitter and Facebook, it’s all the talking heads will talk about on TV, and we’ve even been told to use those words to insure that as many people as people head to the polls this week because, after all, this is apparently the most important election in history.

Its notable that, strangely enough, every election becomes the most important election in history – it is an absolute truth in the US, and one we repeat to ourselves every election cycle.

And when scores of people gather at their voting locations this week, and all the early votes are tallied, we will be told that this is America at its best – elections remind us that we are in charge of our own destinies.

And yet, for Christians, we cannot forget that the only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus.

But, of course, we’re taught from infancy that voting is at the heart of what it means to be who we are in this country. I mean, at my last church we had a preschool in which voting was part of the educational curriculum! 

Picking and choosing leaders is what makes our democracy democratic.

And for as much as that’s true, it overlooks how frighteningly coercive our voting can be. Lest we forget, democratic voting makes it possible for 50.1% of people to tell the other 49.9% of people what to do.

That’s not to say that democracy is inherently evil, or bad, or that we should get rid of it. I, for one, am grateful to be a Christian in this country where my Christian identity is not persecuted simply for me being me. But, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on how willing we are, as Christians, to worship our democracy when it results in what we’ve seen the last few months and, more likely than not, we will continue to see over the next few months.

Now, lest we walk away from this service today thinking it has more to do with politics than with faith – let me be clear: It is all too easy to blame politicians for the coercive nature of politics, for the increasingly vitriolic behavior we feel toward those of different political persuasions. But the problem is far deeper and widespread.

The problem, quite simply, is us.

Or, to put it another way, we get the politicians we deserve. 

They are us and we are them.

Which brings us back to Jesus. 

We did not elect Jesus to be our leader.

We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.

We did not elect Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

There was never a time when the church got together to take a majority vote about whether or not there should be a group of people called church who gather together to worship Jesus. Notably, in the beginning, we decided the best way to choose our leaders was by casting lots!

And, sure, the church today votes on all sorts of stuff but, when we do make decisions, we tend to use the methodology for deciding the future based of a governmental system more than from the revealed Word of God in the strange new world of the Bible.

Jesus’ authority, the power from which he was able to speak to truth to power, comes not from the people, but from God. Elections will always be with us, but they are no substitute for the hard work of the church – we are a people constituted and bound by the Lord who is and speaks the truth.

At her very best, the church is the place for Truth.

And part of the truth we affirm, much to the chagrin of just about everyone, is that Jesus will still be Lord no matter who is elected this week. Jesus still reigns from the right hand of God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. Jesus is still Lord of the living and dead which includes people who identify as red, blue, or purple.

Another part of the truth we affirm, much to the chagrin of just about everyone, is that the greatest among us will be our servant – those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exhausted. We can confess all of that as Good News because it means the ways of the world are not the ways of God. 

In a world drunk on meritocracy, the Lord offers an alternative politic. 

The Kingdom of God is run not on earning and deserving, but on grace and mercy. 

That’s what Jesus’ election is all about – it’s not us choosing him, but him choosing us.

Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Lord, importantly, is not a democratic title. We confess Jesus as Lord because he is the One to whom we owe our fullest and truest allegiance. 

And this, the lordship of Christ, is a fundamental challenge to the status-quo. 

It means that our assumptions about power and prestige are all messed up. 

It forces us to reckon with a world of our own design rather than the Kingdom wrought on earth in the incarnation. 

It compels us to open our eyes and ears to the people we would otherwise ignore.

But it really is Good News, because the most important election in history isn’t happening this week. It already happened a long time ago. 

We didn’t elect Jesus – he elected us. Amen. 

This Shall Be A Sign To You

Psalm 107.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 

On Sunday countless churches across the world (at least those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary) were treated to the Gospel reading when Jesus reminds those with ears to hear that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.

Jesus does so in the Gospel of Matthew as a response to a lawyer who was seeking to trap him in his words. And Jesus, being Jesus, not only responds with an answer that left everyone speechless (“No one dared ask him another question”) but he stole his answer from other parts of the Bible. 

Which is to say, Jesus’ pronouncement about loving God and neighbor isn’t unique to Jesus. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” come straight from Deuteronomy 6:5. And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18. 

The more you read the scriptures, the more you enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more you realize that it is indeed strange because it is constantly repeating and re-interpreting itself. Karl Barth put it this way: “The Old Testament does not end in the New Testament but continues in it, just as the New Testament is already present in the Old Testament.” 

The whole of the revealed Word of God is a living and confounding witness to the repetition of God with God’s people.

A few days ago, after putting the finishing touches on my sermon about Jesus’ treatise on love, I came across an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Some enterprising Christians took the time to diagram out all the chapters in the Bible (from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22) and draw connections backwards and forwards between all the cross-references. In the end, they produced an image with 63,779 connections throughout the entirety of the scriptures and, in God’s strange and wonderful way of doing things, the image came out looking like a rainbow.

How perfect.

The sign of the first rainbow in Genesis after the flood was and is a sign for us of the covenant God has made with God’s creation. And now, seeing another rainbow connecting scriptures, we are reminded of God’s promise to dwell among us, to redeem us, and to love us in spite of us.

The Bible is complex and diverse. It is not something to be consumed just like any other book from front to back. It is a mine that never stops producing incredible gems.

The Bible also contains just about every kind of literary genre from poetry to pose to genealogies to aphorisms and on and on. It can remind us of the same things over and over again or it can smack us in the head with a new insight for the very first time.

The Bible is alive and ever new even though the canon was finished a long time ago. That it is alive and ever new is indicative of the Spirit’s power to bring forth light on something previously shadowed.

Basically, the Bible is awesome. 

Making The Familiar Strange

Matthew 22.34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground. 

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.

Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence. 

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. 

Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.

And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.

This is no easy task.

For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love? 

And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.

Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.

That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.

And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along. 

That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.

But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.

Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”

“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.” 

The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.

“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.

It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.

And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.

Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor. 

Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”

More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.

When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.

When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.

When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.

Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything. 

However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn. 

We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?

A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”

Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.

Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)

Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”

Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!

The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen. 

But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities. 

And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization. 

Instead, love looks like the cross.

And that kind of love is dangerous.

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.  

Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point. 

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.

To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.

And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.

It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.

In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it. 

Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change. 

And, God is love. 

Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen. 

Jesus Lunchables

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Deuteronomy 34.1-12, Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8, Matthew 22.34-46). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including radio voices, the theology of Hamilton, seeing the Promised Land, Drive-In Worship, habits, poetic prose, modeling lament, Pauline distillation, combined commandments, and transfigured wholeness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Lunchables

Political Animals

Psalm 99.1

The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

What’s the most American thing about America? Is it eating a hot dog on the 4th of July? Is it being able to the watch the NBA Finals even in the midst of a pandemic? Is it the fact that you can’t really go anywhere in the country without encountering the flag reminding you exactly what country you’re in?

I would make a case that one of the most American things about the US of A is freedom. 

Freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote, and freedom from anyone trying to infringe upon freedom. 

At the end of the day, nothing is more important to (most) Americans on the political left AND the political right than maintaining the freedom of the individual.

As such, we’ve created and cultivated a culture in which privacy is sought more than community, we believe no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and we can say pretty much whatever we want and others can say whatever they want so long as the two speaking don’t call into question their ability to speak freely.

And, because freedom is the end all be all of our cultural consciousness we’ve, in a weird way, become slaves to our freedom.

Today, our culture is largely divided into two categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every part of our lives can be whittled down to the two predominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch tv, or scroll through Twitter, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by the two representative animals.

Animals, by the way, that we are completely free to choose in terms of our own political proclivities.

The height (and tension) of our current political realities has result in an atmosphere where we are compelled, whether we want to be or not, to identify our own respective camps on a regular basis. And, because we worship our freedom, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, and think like us, and even vote like us.

Our freedom allows us to choose our politicians, much like we choose our communities, but, as Christians, we don’t get to choose our King…

King Jesus, and his Kingdom, run counter to our prevailing obsession with freedom because Jesus binds us to one another rather than allowing us to run off to our own devices. We are compelled to break bread with people we would otherwise ignore. And when we pray those terrifyingly powerful words every week (let thy will be done) it is a confession that we are allegiant to God more than to our own freedom.

Even in these strange times the church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, or vote like us. This is true even when we cannot gather in-person because of the pandemic – our online and digital faith community is made of of people we wouldn’t choose to be with on our own!

Church, thanks be to God, is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important AND more determinative than the political sign in our yard, on our bumper, or the one we keep incessantly posting about on Facebook.

Church, thanks be to God, is where we are reminded over and over and over again that we worship a crucified God who died for the sins of the world. We worship a King whose kingdom is built not on law and order but on grace and mercy. We worship a Messiah who saves us from ourselves.

Salvation belongs to God alone.

Even though Revelation affirms that all nations, races, creeds, and languages will be present in the eschaton, salvation does not belong to any of them – each of them in some way, shape, or form are and forever will be guilty of promising something to a particular while while damning another.

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of fear (and freedom) that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to each other. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities by telling us our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that actually brings division.

But the Lamb of God is different. Jesus reigns for us and in spite of us. The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

The Great And Terrible Mystery

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 33.12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including TNG, immutability, puppy dogs Jesus, James Cone, defined justice, discipleship as imitation, taxes, the drug of political affiliation, and space communism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Great And Terrible Mystery