Beyond Belief

Ephesians 2.11-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was a problem.

No one had any cash.

Again, they were friends gathering in a backyard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put another way: faith is a gift.

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

It was like a miracle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It matters because we are what God has done.

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

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

And, notice the language – have been brought together.

It’s already done and decided.

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

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

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

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

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

We were those people!

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

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

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

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

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

Which is rather notable!

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

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

In the church we call it grace.

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

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

Those days are long gone.

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

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

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

Jesus is the difference who makes us different. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Up!

Mark 6.30-31

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 

Have you ever seen Norman Rockwell’s 1957 painting “Lift Up Thine Eyes”? It portrays the sidewalk outside of a cathedral in a busy city in which all of the passersby have their heads bowed not in reverence but in distraction.

You can see the burdens of the world in their posture and in their gaze but behind them, up toward the doors to the sanctuary, a solitary church figure is replacing the letters on a small sign that says “Lift Up Thine Eyes” and no one seems to be getting the message.

The painting haunts me.

It haunts me because life, it seems, has done its worst to the people passing by. Shuffling to and fro they carry the burden of their burdens – some are on their way to work, other are perhaps looking for work, and all of them can only see what’s right in front of them: a dirty sidewalk trample upon by countless footsteps.

And yet, what haunts me most is the fact that even though the painting was completed 64 years ago, it is still just as relevant today! Simply put a smart phone or an iPad in every person’s hand and you’ve got a modern Rockwell for 2021.

It should come as no surprise that many of us have spent far more time on devices over the last year and a half than we ever had before. The pandemic cloistered us away from one another such that the only way we could really interact was through a phone (that most people no longer even use as a phone!). This dramatic increase in usage has led to the dramatically ironic arrival of Zoom webinars on “Zoom Fatigue”, silent meditations apps only accessible as podcasts, and week-long digital conferences on the dangers of devices.

I was talking with someone the other day and she casually remarked about how hungry she was, and when I asked what she had for lunch she responded: “I was so busy on my computer that I forgot to eat.”

And it’s not just our addiction to our devices – getting rid of them, or hiding them away for a few hours a day, doesn’t rid of of the weight of the world that we carry around all the time. We carry the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world places on us. We carry the sins and the shames of our past (and our present). We carry the terror of tomorrow and the fear of the future. 

And yet, when we return to Rockwell’s painting – the majority of the scene is in reference (and reverence) to something more. The top portion of the painting displays doves (a sign of the Holy Spirit) almost floating in the air, the saints of the cathedral stand in defiance to the burdens of life, and the church door stands awkwardly open barely beckoning anyone to discover what’s on the other side.

Perhaps what the people in the painting need is an interruption – a person who can meet them where they are and who can show them where they can be, a person who can break into their brokenness to bring relief, healing, and even joy.

Thanks be to God, then, that that’s exactly what we get in the person of Jesus Christ. For, God looked down upon our sins and our shames and chose to become one of us in order to redeem and rectify us. God still looks down upon our imperfections and our shortcomings and calls for us to lift up our eyes not to unattainable achievements or superior morality or continued suffering, but instead God calls for our attention to be lifted to the Cross, to the One who lifts us out of our navel-gazing and into the strange new world made possible by God.

Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

We Are The Stories We Tell

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Years ago there was a young man, still early in his ministry, who was appointed to serve a new church. 

At least, it was new to him.

He had gone to the right seminary, and studied all the right books, and prayed all the right prayers, and served in the right ways, and was excited about this next step in the adventure that is faith.

So with eager anticipation, he packed his bags and got in the car to go check out John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia.

This preacher was so excited, in fact, that when he arrived in town, before he unpacked his bags, he drove to the church. He typed the requisite address and admired the different varieties of trees planted perfectly along the road, but when came to his destination, he saw no church.

So he turned around, drove down the road once more and, again, no church to be found.

Finally, he got out of the car, and walked along the sidewalk for a closer inspection until he eventually found the church and he discovered why he missed it so many times: there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the grounds with roots exposed and the church sign, plus the majority of the building, were hidden behind the tree’s long branches. 

The preacher stood awkwardly on the front lawn of the church taking in the sight of the godforsaken tree, and decided he was going to do something about it.

So he drove back to his house, found the box containing his chainsaw, and then he set out to cut the tree down. He made short work of it, moving methodically from branch to branch (he was a Methodist after all) until, before long, he took a step back to admire his work.

The sign and the building were now completely visible from the road and he thought, rather proudly, that maybe just a few extra people would be in church on Sunday morning. 

A few days later, as the pastor sat down to continue chipping away at his first sermon for the church, he received a call from his District Superintendent: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the DS said, “because you’re being reappointed.” 

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. 

John Wesley himself had stood on the roots of that tree nearly 300 hundred years ago and preached to that community. Afterward, the gathered people decided to build a church right next to the tree in honor of the man who started a revolution of the heart, and that young pastor chopped it down.

Stories are remarkably important. Put another way: We are the stories we tell.

They contain and convey just about everything regarding who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held by and within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to share what it ultimately means to be human.

Today we live in a time of competing narratives in which every television show, every streaming service, every website, and every social media platform are vying for our allegiance and our attention. We are constantly bombarded, whether we like it or not, with information that attempts to tell us who we really are, what we really need, and where we are really going.

We live in a time in which more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live in a time in which people spend more time debating where they see the best view of fireworks, or what’s really going on in Loki, or which politician is finally going to set things right than they will consider the children in their community who have nothing to eat. We live in a time in which plenty of us would rather store up all of our treasures on earth without thinking at all about how every gift first comes from the Lord.

Right now, the world is telling us what is important and it’s not easy to discern between the voice of the world, and the voice of God.

But listen to St. Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the powers and principalities that try to define you. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Open your eyes to the beauty of the strange new world made possible by Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Whenever people like us gather like this we are bound together in loyalty to a story that once was not our story. But, through God’s wonderful and confounding actions in the world, that story is now our story. It is a story of cross and resurrection, of the first being last and the last being first, of undeserving people being forgiven.

That story will always but us at odds with the world.

And, according to the ways of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place. People are no longer regularly attending worship and that started long before a pandemic kept us in our houses on Sunday mornings. Christianity has lost its status in the public arena, we are becoming frighteningly illiterate (biblically speaking), and young people are almost nowhere to be seen when it comes to the body of Christ.

Did you know that the average age of a United Methodist is 58?

That means I still have 25 years to go before I’m average!

Did you know that the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years?

The world will tell us that the church is dead, that we have to do whatever we can, however we can, to get people in our building, that we need to cut down every tree (real or otherwise) that is blocking the church from the street, that we need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future because the church is dead.

Thanks be to God then, that we worship the Lord who works in the business of resurrection, of making a way where there is now way, of impossible possibility. 

We don’t have to conform to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! 

While others might shrink away or wail in fear regarding the statistics I just mentioned, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would the church change if we took seriously the radical nature of God’s grace? What would happen if we embraced the trees and traditions of the church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

We are the stories we tell.

Here’s part of mine: 

I am a cradle Methodist – I was baptized when I was 19 days old at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria VA, where I was raised and confirmed. I ran the sound system for worship as a tweenager, played for two of our worship bands, and spent even more time at the church because it was where my boy scout troop met every week. As a teenager one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident and I found myself ministering to friends and family using words that were not my own, but words that had been habituated into my life because of the church and the Spirit.

I began feeling like this might be what God was calling me to do with my life and when I told the senior pastor at my church his response was, “You wanna preach in a few weeks?”

I went to JMU to study religion, I went to Duke for my Masters in Divinity, met my now wife Lindsey while I was in North Carolina and we have a remarkable 5 year old named Elijah Wolf. 

My first appointment was to St. John’s UMC in Staunton, my last appointment was to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I love the church, I always have and I always will. For me, the church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather with people they have nothing else in common with save for the fact that Jesus has called them his friends.

I also love the church because I believe it is the better place God has made in the world. When we pray, when we break bread, when we baptize, we are all getting foretastes of the Supper of the Lamb that goes on and on forever.

Here’s what I know of your story:

I know that the church has been a beacon of the Gospel in Roanoke for 100 years. I know that you care deeply about the Word, about worship, and about mission. I know that you pride yourselves on your hospitality, something my family and I have been the beneficiaries of over the last few weeks. I know that you believe in the work of the Kingdom and are ready for the next 100 years. 

And now God has seen fit to string and knit our stories together.

Being a Christian is all about being brought into another story, a different telling of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that we call the Gospel – The Good News. 

And the stories from the strange new world of the Bible really do shape us – they speak greater truths than simple facts and statistics, they tell us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. That’s why Jesus never really simply explains anything to anyone, but instead is forever going on and on telling stories, stories we call parables. 

At the heart of the church is a willingness to share and to learn the art of story-telling. We learn one another’s stories by gathering for worship, or studying God’s Word, or serving the local and global community. We tell stories and receive stories so that we can cherish the roots of our foundations while, at the same time, looking to the future because God makes all things new.

The story of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church is entering into a new chapter. God is stirring things up in Roanoke. God is bombarding us with the grace that we don’t deserve but we surely need. And God is doing this not because there is a new pastor in town, and God is doing this not because the church is looking forward to the next hundred years – God is doing this simply because that’s who God is.

All of this, the church, the community of faith, grace, it’s all one remarkable gift. It’s the gift of a new past, in which the mistakes we’ve made are healed and the damage we’ve done is redeemed. We call it forgiveness. In the church and in the kingdom of God we are more than what we have failed to do, we are what God has done for us.

But it is all also a gift of a new future, in which the fear of punishment is annihilated and the terror of nothingness is obliterated – we’ve been promised resurrection. 

The Church is a new past, present, and future – it is a way of life made possible by Jesus in anticipation of God doing what God does best.

The world might tell us that the church is in a difficult place. But I look out from this pulpit to all of you gathered here in person, and to all of you gathered online, and I’m not worried about what the world has to say. I’m not worried about anything because my hope isn’t in me or even in any of you, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen. 

Different

Mark 6.1-2

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

Jesus is just different. 

Different from the other prophets of Israel’s great history. Different from the messianic expectations people put on him. And even different according to the people from his hometown.

I’ve always loved this little anecdotal aside from Mark’s Gospel in which, after coming home and teaching in the synagogue, all the people from Jesus’ life couldn’t believe he was doing the things he was doing and saying the things he was saying.

Jesus, after all, is different.

The church, then, is different too. We are not just some institution among other institutions that cares about the well-being of people. We are not just some religiously affiliated people who are obsessed with ancient rituals and holy text. We are those things, but we are also so much more.

For the church, in the end, is an adventure. Week after week we gather to spend time in the strange new world of the Bible in order to discover how that world is actually our world. Everything about who we are, and what we do, is different. 

We are different in terms of time – because we believe in things not yet seen and how God’s kingdom is already being made manifest in the present.

We are also different in terms of space – because even though we have a building and a property we are forever sharing space with the world in God’s mission.

But most of all we are different in terms of story – because while the world will tell us again and again who we are, or what we should think is important, the Gospel stands as a stark declaration that each and every one of us have value and worth no matter what we’ve done or left undone. 

The Gospel gives us a story when we had no story – it is the story of Jesus Christ who is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Last Things

Romans 1.16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Well, I finally did it! I managed to please everyone! Some of you were happy when I was appointed here, some were happy while I was here, and the rest of you are happy now that I’m leaving!

It was more than a decade ago that I entered seminary in hopes that I would, one day, get to do exactly what I’m doing right now. I was persuaded that the church was already the better place God had made in the world and I wanted to be part of that. And when I was in school for this, I didn’t learn about the virtues of nicety. That is, I didn’t go to seminary in order to learn how to make people feel better about themselves. That’s certainly not what I felt God had called me to do. 

And yet, more often than not, it’s exactly what I, other clergy, and most Christians do all the time.

Rather than speaking the truth, in love, we are far more inclined to sweep things under the rug.

Rather than taking seriously the Biblical commandments of discipleship, we are content with letting our faith be something that happens for one hour each Sunday.

Rather than hoping against hope for things not yet seen, we rest in the presumed knowledge that things will, largely, stay the same.

But none of that is very compelling, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.

Which makes me wonder, as I often do at times like this, why are you here?

For some of you, you can’t imagine being anywhere else. You’ve grown up in the church, or it has become so much of a fixture in your life that this is just what you do.

Meanwhile, some of you are here because you have more questions than answers and you want that to change. Maybe life has dealt you a raw hand, or you’ve experienced one too many hardships, or you’re frightened about what tomorrow might offer and you look to the church to help.

And some of you are here against your will. Perhaps a friend or a family member, in the name of love, brought you here and there isn’t anything you can do about it.

But chances are, no matter why we think we’re here, we’re actually here because we want to know more about Jesus.

I mean, people still keep calling me and sending me emails with rather specific questions about a first century carpenter-turned-rabbi, the Discovery Channel is forever producing new documentaries about the person in question, and people like you drive to places like this on Sunday mornings!

But here’s the truth, a truth not often discussed: we know nothing about Jesus whatsoever except what we read in the New Testament. That’s the rather bizarre part of Christianity. Sure, I’ve been to seminary and committed my life to this and study daily, but all of you have just as much access to the Lord as I do. It’s all right there in scripture.

As Paul says elsewhere: I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. On this, my last Sunday, I hope the same can be said of me. That is: throughout these last four years, I have endeavored to do one thing and one thing only: proclaim the Good News of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. 

But the story of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a story of scandal. It is, to use another Pauline expressing, shameful.

Consider the story, for a moment: A child born under extraordinary circumstances to entirely ordinary parents, raised in the forgotten town of Nazareth, propelled into a ministry of teaching and healing, surrounded by would-be followers who, when things got tough, abandoned him to the fate of death all on his own.

If the story of Jesus had ended with the crucifixion, none of us would be here. He would simply have been one of many who died at the hands of the state for causing too much of a ruckus. 

But that’s not where the story ends. 

In fact, it’s really where the story kicks off: Resurrection! He is risen!

And yet, that’s not often what we hear about Jesus. Instead, we’re inclined to lift him up as some moral exemplar or ethical genius. Neither of which are really true. Jesus broke all sorts of rules and it’s not a very good idea to tell people to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile unless (UNLESS) the one saying those things happens to be God in the flesh raised from the dead!

Now, take a gander at any of the epistles and you will see that there was, and perhaps always will be, an awareness that disciples are going to be tempted to retreat from Jesus in embarrassment, fear, or downright confusion. It happened prior to the crucifixion (See Peter) and it continues to happens.

And no one know this better than Paul.

Notice how he begins his letter to the church in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”

Those are strong words to the early church.

They’re strong words for the church today.

And right at the heart of Paul’s proclamation, and all of his letters, is the Cross.

For the centrality of the Cross to be so prominent in the Pauline epistles is rather odd considering how little it is mentioned or considered in the life of faith today.

There are new churches budding up in all sorts of places that have removed the cross from all worship services.

There are plenty of Christians who have settled with describing Jesus as a nice guy but never dare refer to him as the Lord.

There are loads of churches who envision themselves as yet another version of a boring civic organizing and nothing more.

And, you can’t really blame the church or Christians for doing so. In so many ways we’ve watered down the complete and confounding radicality of Christ’s death for the ungodly (that’s how Paul will refer to it in just a few chapters).

Jesus died an ungodly death for ungodly people.

That’s the scandal of the cross.

But, are we scandalized?

Most Sundays, whether online or in a parking lot or inside a sanctuary, we look like we’ve got it together. Or, at least that’s what we want others to think. But we certainly don’t consider ourselves ungodly or, at the very least, sinful.

In many ways, Paul’s proclamation is a terrifying declaration of knowing the condition of his condition. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” is but another way of saying, I am not ashamed of needing the Lord to do for me what I cannot and could not do on my own!

Do you see? Paul was at a place of recognizing how God is the one who meets us in Christ Jesus, God is the one who acts on and in our lives, God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Or, to put it another way, the Gospel is all about Jesus.

It’s all about what Jesus does for us.

Consider the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. One of them mocked the Lord just as much as the crowds did, but the other asked to be remembered.

Nothing else.

Think on that. He did nothing else. But Jesus says to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

I can’t wait to talk to that criminal in the eschaton. I want to ask him about his experience and what happened next.

I can see him walking around with the saints in glory and they’re all saying, “How did you get in?! You never went to church! You never sat through Sunday school! You don’t even know the Apostles’ Creed! How did you get in?”

And the criminal replies, “The guy on the center cross said I could come.”

I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power God for salvation to everyone!

I am not ashamed of the Gospel – I’m sticking with Jesus, I’m sticking with the church!

I know it might feel like we’ve got nothing to hold on to, but Jesus holds on to us!

The world will tell us many things, but the Gospel tells us something different – we are sinners beloved by the one we crucified. The Lord is risen from the dead and there ain’t nothing that can stop him. Jesus is Lord, God of all things past, present, and future.

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead, he says, “Bring to me your burdens and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, he says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners!”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults and our failures. Instead, he says, “You are mine and I am thine!”

No matter what happens, Christians are people of hope. We are people of hope because the Gospel is the Good News of God for the world. We need not worry over this, that, and the other because our hope isn’t in us. It’s not in me, or in Pastor Gayle. It’s not in the local community or even in the United Methodist Church. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. God is in the business of salvation and resurrection which means that no matter how bad we are or how good we are God can and will do what we cannot. Everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ died. 

We need not be ashamed of the Gospel, it’s the only Good News for a world drowning in bad news and it is ours, for free, for nothing. 

While we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sins, Christ died for us. He has taken the responsibility of salvation squarely on his shoulders. He has just gone and done it all without us having to do anything. And he invites us to simply trust that he has done this for us, and to proclaim that trust by acting as if we really believe it. Amen. 

Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 17.32-49, Psalm 9.9-20, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-41). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including articles of clothing, bad introductions, meta-narratives, Sunday School scriptures, Christological readings, true trust, Pauline suffering, textual juxtapositions, stilled storms, and open questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

The End Is Where We Start From

2 Corinthians 5.6-17

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Most stories follow a common structure.

Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.

And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.

All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.

Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):

There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.

And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.

But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!

But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun. 

Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.

Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.

There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]

There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).

There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.

Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 

Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.

Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.

Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.

How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?

Now, that’s an exciting beginning.

You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling. 

TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

The end is where we start from.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”

Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”

Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”

Wow!

That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?

Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.

We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!

Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.

The end is where we start from. 

That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?

No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.

If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!

We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view. 

That’s the end which is our beginning. 

Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.

And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.

We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.

We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.

Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”

The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning. 

And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.

But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well. 

That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided. 

The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.

And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.

Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.

“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.” 

Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”

And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.

The Insanity of the Gospel

Mark 3.20-35

And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 

This is a difficult passage.

We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.

So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.

Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”

Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.

“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!

And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.

This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.

And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.

Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.

Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.

Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”

No. They said he was out of his mind. 

But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.

Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life. 

That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.

Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.

And perhaps they had a point. 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”

That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster. 

Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”

That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”

Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…

Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.

No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there! 

Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.

You can only win by losing.

You can only receive by giving.

You can only live by dying.

Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?

Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.

And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!

Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”

And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?

His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.

The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?

But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset. 

It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you. 

But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.

If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.

The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be. 

It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.

It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.

Could there be any better news than that?

But wait, there’s more!

Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds. 

But what about for God?

God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.

Including us!

The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.

Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.

And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.

Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!

Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.

Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail. 

That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes. 

So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen. 

Standing In The Midst

“The story of Pentecost is more than a pretty tale. Here is real knowledge, deep ultimate insights into that existence which Jesus is. What is told on Pentecost is that Jesus not only was, but that He is, and will be. He does not exist here or there in a certain place; for Him there is not only a ‘once’ and a ‘then’ but he is yesterday, today and the same in all eternity; in a word, Jesus is ‘standing in the midst.’ – Karl Barth, Pentecost Sermon

Full disclosure – I get a strange and sweet satisfaction from listening to lay liturgists when they read scripture aloud in worship. Perhaps it’s the years of training and devotion to a collected volume of texts being boldly proclaimed, but I think most of my enjoyment stems from the struggle that can occur with particular passages. It could be one of the many genealogies, or a more graphic detail from the Song of Songs, or a moment of profound violence and, in real time, you can witness the person reading the text coming to grips with the text.

The same holds true for the story of Pentecost from Acts.

“And how is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2.9-11)

I love it when laypeople read that bit because they, like everyone else (clergy included) don’t really ever say those words and they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

It’s a rather diverse ethnic gathering for the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, but it’s also a historically impossible gathering as well. The Medes of Acts 2 would’ve had one hell of a time getting to Jerusalem all the way from Mesopotamia not only because the distance between the places is a few hundred miles, but also because the Medes had been extinct for at least two centuries before the day of Pentecost took place. 

And the Elamites? They are only mentioned in passing in the book of Ezra and are never mentioned again. 

Pentecost, then, is peculiarly and particularly powerful because it details the gift of the Spirit across space and time.

Which is all just another way of saying that the Spirit poured out on Pentecost really was for everyone.

We might not know it, or even believe, but you and I were there too along with the Medes and the Elamites.

Or, to use Barth’s words, Pentecost is a reminder that Jesus, through the Spirit, is still standing in the midst. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in a Pentecost(al) mood: (The playlist includes some of my favorite cover tunes of The Beatles – I share them because whenever I listen to these covers I feel like I am out of space and time hearing other bands interpret some of the most well known tunes of all time.)