Grace Doesn’t Make Sense

Philippians 1.1-11

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God. 

There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.

The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community. 

At least, that’s the idea.

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.

Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.

However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.

Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.

Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes. 

To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.

Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence. 

The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”

The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.

And grace never stops coming. 

It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve. 

And we really don’t deserve it.

We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity. 

But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.

That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.

According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.

And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.

Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.

Is peace simply the absence of conflict?

Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?

For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for. 

Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.

The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).

God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.

Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country. 

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.

For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.

One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.

He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.

And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be. 

But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!

Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”

Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.

Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.

Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.

For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving. 

His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace. 

Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped. 

The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word. 

And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.

And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.

Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good. 

Jesus is our grace.

And that makes all the difference. Amen. 

The Closest Thing to Grace

Matthew 14.15-18

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them to me.”

I might appear cheerful in my Sunday morning streamed services on Facebook and YouTube, but I can assure you that recording those services is anything but cheerful. There is the never-ceasing dread that the internet will cut out or I’ll lose my train of thought or no one will actually watch or etc. And yet, week after week I stand inside of an empty sanctuary, staring into a camera, hoping that it will result in faithful worship.

But there have been plenty of mistakes.

One week I was 3/4 of the way through the services when my computer went completely dark signifying that the live-stream had stopped. So I made my way over to the device thinking I could get it back on, all while muttering un-pastoral words under my breath, without realizing that the live-stream had somehow continued in the madness.

One week, I tried recording the service early so that I could premiere the video on Sunday morning when a supercell thunderstorm rolled in and the sanctuary shook with every thunder clap leaving me to cower a little more with each successive burst (I decided to wait that one out and record a few hours later).

And last week, I set up the camera up via my iPhone and talked for 45 minutes straight only to realize that none of it recorded because someone called me in the first five minutes and my phone switched apps.

What can you do but laugh?

I mean, these really are crazy times and we preachers are trying crazily to keep the Word fresh and faithful in a time when we cannot gather together in-person.

I confess that, on more occasions than I care to admit, I have fallen down to the floor in the sanctuary with nothing but crazed laughter knowing how many mistakes I’ve made throughout the pandemic when it comes to being a pastor.

Laughter, to put it another way, has saved me.

If Jesus’ original disciples weren’t able to laugh at themselves, I’m not sure how they were able to make it as disciples at all.

Jesus laid it all out at least three times about his whole death and resurrection and they still abandoned him on the cross.

Jesus went on and on about the Kingdom of heaven and they never stopped asking him when it was going to happen and what it was going to look like.

Jesus performed countless miracles and one day, when the crowds were especially large, the disciples thought it would be better for the people to be sent home because they didn’t have enough food. How, in the world, could they not have known that Jesus would be able to feed the crowds that day? Had they not been paying attention at all???

It’s not in scripture, but I am convinced that those days after the resurrection and before the ascension were filled with the disciples laughing at themselves for having been so obtuse the entire time.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, wrote “Having a sense of humor means not being stiff but flexible. Humor arises when we have insight into the contradiction between our existence as children of God and as children of this age, and we become conscious of our actions in a lively way… Those who laugh at themselves are also allowed to laugh at others and will joyfully also pass the ultimate test of being laughed at themselves – a test that much alleged humor usually fails miserably.”

It is good and right for us to laugh at ourselves, particularly in the light of our discipleship, for we are nothing more than people stumbling around in the darkness hoping that God can make something of our loving.

And if we are able to laugh at ourselves then we are in good shape. For, laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God. 

We Know The Way

4d46bf1bb0394b294fab8d3ea3c7ea0b-1024x1024

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Blakely about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 7.55-60, Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2.2-10, John 14.1-14). Josh works for Longwood University and is currently completing a Masters Degree at Duke Divinity in order to pursue ordination as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including joy in a joyless time, foundational threads, spiritual bystanders, receptive ears, real enemies, gifts, the exclusivity of Christianity, and the idiocy of the disciples. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Know The Way

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 1.38.24 PM

The Better Place

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

They traveled to the tomb very early on the first day of the week. 

On a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the journey. We don’t hear about their grief and their pain. We don’t get a glimpse at their plans now that the Lord is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really learn anything except they travel without knowing how they will roll the stone back.

Low and behold… The very large stone has already been rolled away by the time they arrive. And to further their confusion, when they look inside they discover a young man dressed in white. A divine messenger? An angel? 

He speaks, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is alive. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And here’s how the Gospel story ends: They ran from the tomb terrorized, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Easter. 

It doesn’t get much better than this for the church. Out of death, life! 

b110144f82dfd31199537e0400567824

For centuries the church has mined this story for every possible nugget that can speak something new and wonderful into our lives. I, myself, have preached about the fear that so befuddles the women and how the Gospel ends with a lie. For, if they really said nothing to anyone, how else would we have heard the story?

I have preached about how new life seems to always start in darkness, whether its in the womb or in the tomb.

I have preached and preached this story.

And yet, this year, as I returned to the words that have comforted and confounded Christians for centuries, I’ve been stuck on a different detail.

Why Galilee?

I mean, good for Jesus that he’s raised from the dead and goes home. But Galilee was an out-of-the-way forgotten sort of place. It’s only claim to fame is that Jesus came from it. 

Of course, Jesus did his Jesus thing in Galilee, and Galilee is where he called the disciples, and cured the sick, and fed the hungry, and preached the parables.

But even in the midst of his Galilean mission, Jesus was focused on eventually getting to the big show – Jerusalem.

The mission and the ministry builds toward the Transfiguration, and then everything shifts to the Holy City – the gospels sharpen as Jesus enters on the back of the donkey on Palm Sunday. Jerusalem is where he was betrayed, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

Jerusalem was the place to be, it’s where all the movers and the shakers were hanging out, its where those who believed in unbelievable things hoped the Messiah would take charge and transform the world. 

Which makes the detail and the news of a Galilean reunion so bizarre. Here, on Easter, the Son of God is no longer held captive by the dominion of death, he is resurrected, and he leaves Jerusalem for Galilee.

That’s confounding.

One would hope that, on the other side of resurrection, Jesus would be smart enough to go right up to the palace to give Pilate a whole, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Or, Jesus would storm into Herod’s inner court to rip him a new one.

Or, at the very least, Jesus would gather a band of revolutionaries to overturn the powers and the principalities occupying Jerusalem.

Did the Lord of lords not know that if you really want to make a change you have to go to the top?

Jerusalem should’ve been the first step in the journey toward overthrowing the empire, Jerusalem would’ve been the perfect place to plant the flag of the kingdom of Heaven, Jerusalem could’ve been the beginning of the end.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of that – he doesn’t do the effective thing.

Instead he goes back to Galilee, of all places.

Nobody special lived in Galilee – it was populated by shepherds, fishermen, and farmers. The people there held no power or prestige.

The only thing notable at all about Galilee, is that’s where the followers of Jesus were from.

People like us.

When we read the Easter story, whether it’s on a Sunday in church or from the comfort of our own homes, we catch this moment when the women run away in fear. And because we tend to focus so much on their reaction, their terror, that we miss how Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the very people who abandoned him.

Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging along for three years as the people for whom and through whom he will change the world.

On Easter Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.

He doesn’t storm the gates of the temple, he doesn’t show up in the Oval Office, he goes where nobody would’ve expected.

Hear the Good News: 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not after we repented of all of our sins, not before we even had a chance to think up all of our sins, but in the midst of them, in our worst and most horrible choices Jesus dies and rises for us.

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, people like us who too easily move from “Hosanna” to “Crucify.”

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought; my sin, not in part, but the whole. Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

All of that can be summed up like this: Jesus returns to us.

resurrection-2

Take it from a preacher like me, even in these strange circumstances of celebrating Easter online, we’ve messed up the resurrection message for a long time. We’ve made church into yet another self-help program, a place to gather week after week to hear about what you must do to make your life better. Or, in case you don’t want to look too close to home, what you must do to make the world a better place.

And that doesn’t have anything to do with Easter!

It’s not Good News.

Notice: on Easter, Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them or judge them or even damn them. He doesn’t give them a list of things to do, or programs to start, or prayers to pray. 

Instead, he just comes back to them, to us, with, of all things, love.

How odd of God.

When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.

Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.

Lost in exile? God brings the people home.

Dead in your sins? God sets us free.

Are we really sure we want to worship this God who refuses to leave us to our own devices?

God is like the shepherd who willingly leaves behind the ninety-nine to search for the one who is lost. God doesn’t sit back and relax and just hope for the best. God charges out into the wilderness and refuses to quit.

God is like a Samaritan, forsaken and ignored by the rest of the world, who stops by the side of the road to help the one that everyone overlooked. God doesn’t keep walking by with better things to do. God condescends God’s self to get down in the ditch with all of us.

God is like a king who hosts a giant party and, when not enough people show up, sends his servants out into the streets to grab anyone they can find, even the poor and the marginalized, and makes space for them at the banquet.

God is like the father who runs out into the street, stops his prodigal and wayward child before an apology can even spring forth, and says, “I’m busting out the good stuff tonight, we’re having a party! You were dead but now you’re alive!”

We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we might’ve thought the story was over. That the shadow of the cross remaining in the distance puts a conclusion on the whole thing. That, in the end, we really had gone too far this time with the whole killing the Son of God.

But even in this, the greatest sin of all, Jesus comes back.

He comes back to the betrayers and the crucifiers, to the doubters and the deserters.

Jesus comes back to us.

The work of Jesus, contrary to how we so often talk about it and hear about it in church, is not transactional. There is no such thing as “if” in the Gospel. 

We are not told that the Lord expects us to get everything ironed out before he will come and dwell among us.

He doesn’t wait behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough good morality in the world before he busts out.

What we are told, from the cross and from the resurrection, is that Jesus is already in it with us, and even more that he has gone on ahead of us.

Church, whenever it descends into “you must do this, or you have to make the world a better place” fails be the church Christ inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection, because we will fail that work.

Easter invites us to do nothing except trust; trust that there is a New Jerusalem waiting to come down and feast at the Supper of the Lamb, the Lamb who has been with us the whole time, who refuses to abandon us regardless of how good we are or how bad we are.

If Easter because anything less bizarre than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen. We can’t raise Jesus from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is the best news of all.

Easter, simply put, is a gift. A gift like grace – unwarranted, unmerited, undeserved. 

God has made the world a better place in Jesus Christ who comes back to us. Amen.

Radical

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a lot of churches around here. I’ve mentioned before that, depending on which way I go, I can pass by 15 other churches on my way from my house to this church. All kinds of churches – big churches and little churches, protestant churches and catholic churches (well, only one of those). And they’re all different. On Sundays they are filled with different people listening to different pastors preached about different subjects. 

I wish there was only one church, a united single church within which all Christians across the globe could call home. But it doesn’t exist.

Instead we disagree on an almost limitless number of things such that new kinds of churches are sprouting up every day.

In fact there are so many different versions of church out there that we have something in the modern parlance called “church shopping.” If you simply don’t like what you hear on a Sunday morning you can try out a different church next Sunday and the one after that and the one after that until you find the perfect church.

I’m assuming that most of you are here because this church is as close as you’ve found to perfection.

And even though there is no one real thing that unites the multiplicity of churches, except for maybe Jesus, there is something around here that seems to bind them all together: Harvest Parties.

Have you seen the signs recently? Have you been invited by your neighbors? I haven’t been able to drive anywhere without big and bold letters letting me know that some Christian group is having a harvest party – and they’ve all been scheduled for the same weekend. This weekend!

So why are churches hosting harvest parties? I don’t know.

My best guess is it seems like a whole bunch of churches want to have Halloween parties without calling them Halloween parties. 

Perhaps they don’t like the idea of kids in costumes, or free candy, and putting the word “harvest” on a celebration makes it feel more wholesome.

And the problem with all of that is the fact that Halloween is a Christian holiday!

Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve – a liturgical service in the midst of the Christian year. And All Hallows’ Ever is just an older English way of saying All Saints’ Eve.

It occurs the evening before the first of November, and it is a time marked by Christians across the globe by giving thanks to God for the departed saints who came before us. In other churches this took place on Friday, but we’re celebrating All Saints’ today. And because it is fundamentally a remembrance of the dead and anticipating their resurrection, it’s obvious how it connects with the habits and practice of what we call Halloween.

When Christians get afraid of consumes and the candy, or try to move it or tame it or water it down, it just reinforces our greatest fear the we try to deny with every waking breath – the inevitability of death.

But Halloween, All Saints, they are prime opportunities for us to dance with death, not in a way that worships the darkness that frightens us, but to shout with a resounding voice that death will not win. We Christians are the ones who laugh at death’s power in this world, not because it doesn’t sting, but because we have already died with Christ that he might raise us into new life. 

Halloween is therefore one of the most Christian days of the year because our God is in the business of raising the dead!

Our God is a radical God!

Do-not-conform-daily-devotional-by-pocket-fuel-Romans-12

On All Saints the church witnesses to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives who are no longer alive. We read their names and offer time for reflective and prayerful silence. And we do all of that because in ways both big and small, the saints we remember today joined in the unending chorus of laughter in the face of death’s dark rays.

It is one of the more radical moments in the liturgical year.

Matched only by the radical words from the lips of Jesus read for us already.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

This topsy turvy announcement about the power of God’s grace contains tremendous blessings: If you are weeping now you God will turn it around to bring forth laughter – if you are suffering now for the Son of Man you will jump in joy for your reward is great in heaven.

But for as much as it presents a rose tinted view of a time not yet seen, Jesus continues the reversal. 

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

The poor and hungry will have their fortunes reversed – that sounds like good news. But for those us us who are sitting well in our finances and happy with full bellies – its not so good. The rich, the powerful, the well regarded, their fortunes are going to be reversed as well. 

In this mini sermon from the gospel of Luke, Jesus overturns all of our previous misconceptions about the way the world works: The poor become rich, the rich become poor, the outcasts are brought in, and the powerful are cast out. We might struggle with these words, or perhaps we might consider them unfair, but God isn’t fair. For if God were fair, none of us would be good enough. 

God is inherently unfair – God is in the business of righting wrongs and even wronging rights – God raises the dead.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus lives according to the words of this sermon by going to those on the margins, consistently challenging the status quo, and convicting those who feel too certain they are right. Likewise, saints are those whose lives demonstrated a care for those on the margins, or standing up for those forced to the ground, and speaking for those whose voice were taken away. 

But, lest we leave today under the impression that saints are very, very holy people, a people whose lives cannot be matched, saints really are just like us. Again and again in Paul’s letter, he addresses the people as the saints who are in Christ Jesus. For Paul, being a Christian and being a saint were one in the same. The assumption being that to be a Christian meant you were ready to die for your faith. 

the-way-of-jesus-sermon-series

The earliest saints, in fact, were the earliest Christian martyrs – people literally killed because of what they believed. And here we come to another often forgotten or disregarded piece of discipleship: Christianity is about more than being nice to people. Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another and the early Christians weren’t martyred for suggesting we all just get along with each other.

They were killed for being radical. 

They were killed for saying things like the first will be last and the last will be first. 

They were killed because they believed in worshipping God rather than Caesar, rather than the King, rather than the President. 

And that’s not every getting into all the stuff about how we are supposed to relate to one another: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

And that comes into direct conflict with the powers and the principalities. To say those things aren’t the end all be all is to start carrying our own crosses up to Golgotha. 

Whether its Rome, or America, or our bosses, or our spouses, or whoever – we are forever being told who we are. We define ourselves by the definitions given to us by others, and more often than not from the others with power. When we look in the mirror we see not what we see but we see what we’ve been told.

But for Christians, none of us know who we really are until God tells us.

And that kind of behavior drives the powers and principalities crazy! As those who follow Jesus we refused to be defined by others. We are more than the people we vote for, or the team we cheer on, or the embarrassing story that stayed with us for years. We are not those things. We are who we are because of God. 

Being a saint, then, is really nothing more than confessing we have been saved by the One who made us part of an extraordinary community that refuses to let others tell us who we are.

All Saints’ Sunday is a time for us to celebrate the lives and the deaths of those who were here before us. It is not an accident the the text assigned for today ultimately has to do with death. Living according to the words of Jesus is a radical thing. It is also a total thing.

The “All” in “All Saints’” is powerful. It is the church’s proclamation that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we do as a church. You don’t have to have lived the perfect life at the perfect church to be a saint. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, its the admission that we are far from perfect. But Christ isn’t done with us yet. 

Chances are, none of us here will ever be killed for our faith. Part of that stems from the fact that our nation and our faith are tied up with each other, contrary to the obsession with the separation of church and state. And another part of it stems from the fact that when we read these challenging words from Jesus we imagine them as some hopeful future instead of them being a command. 

Because if we really lived according to these words, people would try to kill us.

Thanks be to God then, that all of us here have already died. The waters of baptism brought us into the very heart of Jesus’ crucifixion that we might come out on the other side of the tomb with him. 

As the culture around us starts to turn toward Thanksgiving and an overly commodified version of Christmas, today we are reminded that those who are looking for happiness in a bigger house or a larger paycheck or a better spouse will discover that those things will never make us happy. There will always be a bigger house, more lucrative jobs, and people with power. 

On All Saints’ we cannot ignore the great cloud of witnesses who have pointed us to a different way, The Way we call Jesus. We know not what tomorrow will bring but we do know that God in Christ is in the business of making all things new, of raising the dead, and only God can tell us us who we are. Amen. 

The Gospel Is Fun

Devotional: 

Hebrews 13.16

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Years ago one of my seminary professors lectured about how the church survived the first few centuries when Christians were being regularly persecuted for their faith. He first noted that the resurrection of Jesus was so powerful and transformative that the early disciples could not help themselves but stay committed to such a thing. But then he said something else that has stuck with me ever since, “And the gospel is fun!”

On Sunday afternoon I was running around in my “Church Can Happen Anywhere” shirt across out parking lot and thanking God under my breath for the beautiful weather. We had people from all over our local community spread out with more food than they knew what to do with and I was trying to make sure that everything for the celebration was going smoothly. The moon bounce on the other side of the pavilion was a huge hit, the drinks were nice and cold, but for some reason the slip and slip was remaining un-enjoyed over on the hill.

I promptly made my way over to make sure the water was flowing properly when a few kids followed closely on my heels. “Is it working?” “Am I allowed to go on it?” “How cold is it?” were the murmurings behind me and I assured the children that all would be well. 

After checking the hose connection I encouraged the closest child to try it out and before I could talk her through how the whole thing worked she was racing down the hill cackling with joy. Within the new few minutes a small crowd of kids and adults had gathered around the slide and it became abundantly clear the time had come for me, the pastor, to slip and slide down the hill as well.

So I did.

Screen Shot 2019-08-29 at 1.00.59 PM

I spent the rest of the celebration continuing to check in on people as was necessary and when we started cleaning up I overheard one of the little girls exclaiming to her mother (while drenched from head to toe), “This church is fun!”

The church is supposed to be a lot of things: faithful, holy, transformative, contemplative, etc. And sadly, one of the words least associated with church is fun. But on Sunday, we had fun.

The writer of Hebrews notes that doing good and sharing what we have is pleasing to God. Which, when considering the fact that Jesus spent his final evening with his friends doing exactly that, it makes a lot of sense. However, it strikes me that many churches and church-related activities have lost their sense of fun. And if the joy of the gospel was enough to sustain the earliest disciples, why aren’t we seeking that same kind of fun today?

Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

Parables-of-Jesus

One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

Homily-20130825-Small-Narrow-Gate-shutterstock_112858771

Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

club-line

The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen. 

Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. 

Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions. 

So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?

All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!

maassen_resurrection_sml

The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality. 

It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.

The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.

It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb. 

Have you ever had to bury someone?

If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.

It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.

Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.

On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.

So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.

It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot. 

And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.

I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”

“Really?” He said incredulously.

That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. 

I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.

So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”

“All of what?”

“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”

resurrection-Easter-edit[1]

The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.

But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.

Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers. 

And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence. 

That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean? 

And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us! 

We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas. 

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we. 

We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change. 

We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.

But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!

And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened. 

And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?

They don’t believe it.

To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter. 

Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in. 

One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.

All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.

The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation. 

holy-week-easter-title-still

The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard. 

That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!

The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.

I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”

And he left. 

I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.

But I see resurrection everyday.

I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.

I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.

I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down. 

I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.

I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.

The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.

But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen. 

Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

should-we-raise-our-hands-in-worship-xubtoy7c-e1c9413b566e43662e678d3e3660146f

From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

joy-of-the-lord

Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak

Devotional:

James 5.13

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Weekly Devotional Image

 On Friday evening I stood in the sanctuary with a wedding party and was attempting to guide them through a rehearsal of what would be the wedding ceremony on Saturday evening. The bridesmaids, of course, were attentively listening to my directions and promptly moved through the church accordingly while the groomsmen, of course, were joking with the groom and trying to distract him from everything we were doing.

We finally got to the portion of the rehearsal when I lined everyone up by the altar and gave the bride and groom a glimpse of what would be said and done during the exchanging of vows, when one of the groomsmen leaned over to the groom and made a jesting comment about his weakness and inability to get the thing done. To which the groom triumphantly declared, “No! Seven days without prayer makes one weak, and I am strong!”

Which just so happened to be the words on our church marquee when he arrived for the rehearsal!

praying-man

When should we pray? Some might say that prayer is necessary when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of life and we are in need of the light. Some will say we need only pray when we actually need something. And still yet some will say that we should pray only when we are in a place to properly praise the Lord before asking for something.

Sadly, prayer is often made out to be a conditional proposition in which we must be in the right place, or we must offer God the right words or phrase in order for it to become efficacious. 

However, prayer (at least according to St. James) is something that we should do, regardless of the circumstances. Pray when you are suffering, and pray when you are cheerful. Pray when you are alone, and ask other people to pray for you when you’re in community. Prayer, in and of itself, is not something that can or should be relegated to particular times and moments. Instead, it is something we are called to do without ceasing.

For it is in prayer that we are made strong in our faith, in our convictions, in our beliefs that we are who God believes we are. 

So pray when you are up and when you are down. Pray when all is well and when all is hell. Pray when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Pray until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied.