Happy Advent, You Brood Of Vipers!

Matthew 3.7

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Tomorrow morning my six year old son will open up his Star Wars Lego Advent Calendar and will promptly put together a little droid, or a mini-figure, or some other object from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. 

And he will rejoice.

But it’s hard for me to call it an actual “Advent” calendar. First, Advent started last Sunday, not December 1st. Second, the little trinkets are certainly fun but they don’t really have anything to do with the “hastening and waiting” that define this season. And, finally, Advent points to the arrival (and return!) of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereas most (if not all) Advent calendars point to the arrival of presents under a tree on Christmas morning.

Fleming Rutledge, my theological Advent hero, was once similarly struck by the strange juxtaposition of Advent calendars and the real message of Advent and said that the best Advent calendar would be one in which, every time you opened the next day/box, a strange bearded and camel-hair wearing man would jump out and shout, “You brood of vipers!”

John the Baptist gets to shine this time of year in church because he straddles the already but not yet. He sees the new world coming and warns the people of “the wrath that is to come.”

It just happens that the wrath of God is made manifest in the cross that is our salvation.

The church, in Advent, takes up John’s mantle and proclaims the truth that something is coming, and that we do need to prepare for it, but only because to miss it would ruin all the fun. 

And yet, there is a strong temptation to make the call for preparation all about our need to finally make the world a good enough place for Christ to arrive. Preachers and pontificators alike will stand up and say things like, “You need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.”

Which are all worthy things for us to do. But Christ arrives whether we do them or not. Frankly, Christ arrives because we do not do the things we should do. That’s the whole point!

Therefore, we don’t come to church in Advent (or any other time of year) to hear about what we need to do. Instead we come to hear about what’s been done, for us!

Or, as Martin Luther put it, “The Law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The sad and bitter truth of this season is that we are “a brood of vipers” and that we have much to repent. And yet, the truly Good News of Advent is that Christ comes for us anyway. That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years – it is downright terrifying to be loved by God because we simply don’t deserve it.

But that’s also why the Good News is so good

Mitchell

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.

John 3.16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing. He wanders around Galilee, making the impossible possible, telling parables of prodigals and publicans, and confronting cantankerous clergy. And, at some point, crowds begin to follow. Within these crowds are the disciples, the ones called by the Lord to a different life. And these disciples, the ones who are supposed to have this stuff all figured out, they keep interrupting with questions. 

Hey JC, when will this kingdom of yours actually start? 

Teacher, did you really say we need to turn the other cheek?

Lord, who will make it into heaven?

The disciples, to their foolish credit, assume they’ve already made the cut. They, after all, left it all behind to follow Jesus. So what they really want to know is, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

It’s a good question. 

And Jesus answers by picking a random kid out of the crowd and lifting him up. 

It’s a strange moment in the strange new world of the Bible.

All these grown up with their grown up ideas and grown up hopes and grown up assumptions, they stand and watch Jesus take hold of a little kid and he says, “If you want to get into heaven, you have to be like this little boy.”

It’s no wonder the disciples rebuke Jesus for such an answer.

What does this boy have to show for himself? What random acts of kindness earn such a profound distinction from the Lord? 

In the end, all that he has to show matters not at all to the one who comes to make all things new.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, you have to be like a little kid.

To me, Mitchell was always a little kid.

I know that he eventually grew to be taller than me, and perhaps a bit wiser, but because our families grew up together, I couldn’t really see him as anything other than a little kid. 

And, to be fair, he acted like a little kid.

Mitchell could fall asleep in the strangest of places from on a couch during a loud dinner party, to on his boat in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night.

But his childlikeness was such a gift. 

In my life I’ve never known anyone so easy to be around. Whenever he smiled, it took over his whole face and no matter what you might’ve been going through you couldn’t help but smile back. He had this way of shrugging his shoulders that made everyone else realize that we were probably taking everything else a little too seriously. He had a confidence about himself that was bizarrely endearing.

Did you know that when Mitchell was younger he once told Susie that he wanted to get John 3.16 tattooed on his hand so that, when he threw a touchdown on tv, everyone would be able to see it?

That, in a sentence, might be the most Mitchell thing I’ve ever heard.

In the life of faith we are encouraged to have scripturally shaped imaginations. That means that whenever we enter the strange world of scripture, we discover that it is indeed our world. So much so that when we read of Jesus walking down to the sea of Galilee to preach the Good News, it’s not difficult to picture Mitchell waiting off to the side of the crowd joking around with some friends. And then, when Jesus realizes the crowds have grown too large and needs a way to address everyone, Mitchell is the one who volunteers for the Lord to use his wake-boarding boat. But to bring it all home, when people still struggle to hear what Jesus has to say out on the water, Mitchell is the one who informs the Lord that the boat has a killer sound system and he can crank it up, if that’s what the Lord wants.

Jesus says, Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. 

There’s a childlike quality to giving, and receiving, love as conveyed in the Bible. It’s why Paul is so quick to riff on the subject in his first letter to the church in Corinth. For millennia these words have cultivated and curated the people called church: love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends.

Mike, Susie, Brianna, this is the love that you had for Mitchell. You were patient with him, you rejoiced with him, you wept with him, you laughed with him. You surrounded him in every moment of his life with the tangible beauty of ever-enduring love. Any life is made intelligible only by and through love. And Mitchell was dearly loved.

But the same holds true for how Mitchell loved you and all of us. This gathered body is a witness and a testimony not just to the love we have for Mitchell, but to the love he demonstrated for us. Within these pews are countless stories of love and joy and peace and delight that were made manifest through him. 

Mitchell loved you. Each and every one of you. 

Our lives were richly blessed by him, and will continue to be blessed because of him.

That is why, even in our terrible terrible grief we can be grateful. We can be grateful because Mitchell was such a gift. 

1 Corinthians 13 will always speak words into a moment when we no longer know what to say. The love with which our lives are made possible is the great proclamation that makes the Good News good. 

And yet, for as often as we have read this text to be about us and the love we have for one another, it is actually the declaration of who God is for us. 

You see, God is love. Which means God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on his own way; God is not irritable; God keeps no records of wrongs; God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, and endures all things.

The promise of the Gospel is that no one, absolutely no one, is outside the realm of God’s grace and love. No matter what we do or leave undone, God is for us no matter what.

God’s love for Mitchell knows no end. 

Hear the Good News: In the fullness of time, God in Christ is born into the muck and mire of our lives, wandering the streets of time, making a way where there is no way. And then, Jesus takes all of our sins, past-present-future, nails them to the cross and leaves them there forever. The Lord is locked up forsaken and dead in a tomb. But three days later, God gives him back to us.

We are Easter people. Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our resurrection. The empty tomb is the proclamation that one day we will all feast at the Supper of the Lamb with Mitchell. We will gather at the table around which God makes all things new and there will be no mourning or crying, only dancing and laughing.

But that day is not this day.

Today we weep because Mitchell is gone.

And yet, there’s another time in scripture when the disciples are continuing to badger Jesus with their questions about the kingdom of heaven and to whom it belongs. And Jesus says, “Heaven belongs to those who mourn, those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”

In short, heaven belongs to people like Mitchell and people like us. Thanks be to God.

Standing In Grace

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for Trinity Sunday [C] (Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the podfather, personification, worship planning, advice, trinitarian metaphors, interpretative lenses, babes and infants, reading backwards, communal requirements, hope, and confession. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Standing In Grace

Relentless

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for Pentecost Sunday [C] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17, (25-27)). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Twitter pastors, flames in worship, pneumatological inebriation, meaning, Whiskey Creek, baptism, Eugene Peterson, repetition, anchovy pizza, advocacy, and true community. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Relentless

Strangely Warmed

John 17.23

I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Why the United Methodist Church?

This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”

For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.

I follow Jesus, not John Wesley. 

And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on. 

There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738

What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!

I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things. 

While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference. 

If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.

So That

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including earthquakes, real prayers, freedom, hardhats, believing on Jesus, mountain melting, the idolatry of image, Christian hatred, the alphabet of faith, Between Two Ferns, unity, and love. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: So That

A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth. 

The Lamb Lamp

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5, John 14.23-29). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including hymnody, marriage, vikings, dreams, communal discernment, ecclesial friendship, world-turning, the joy of judgment, Eugene Peterson, fear, timelessness, church architecture, peace, and endings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Lamb Lamp

What’s Wrong With The World?

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”

There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist. 

But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. 

In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

What a righteous slogan.

The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.

Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.

I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.

It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”

That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.

All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!

It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.

Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross. 

If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!

We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.

Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.

The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another. 

Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.

And then he died.

In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, 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 in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship. 

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

To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”

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

Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing. 

The New Newness

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 11.1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including love, books, ordination, dietary restrictions, the rule of threes, kingdom expansion, the praise of creation, funeral texts, tangible promises, commandments, Makoto Fujimura, and newness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The New Newness