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
Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame, once opined in song about what it means to be part of the people called Methodists:
I’ve been going to church every Sunday morn,
Still don’t know if I’ve been reborn,
I’m sixty years old, is there something I’ve missed?
Or is it just that I’m Methodist?
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
The organ is soupy and the pastor is bland
Leave afterward and I shake his hand
Sometimes I’d like to shake my fist
That’s what it’s like to be Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
The sound system’s bad, there’s a buzz in the speaker,
The budget is busted, the collection is meager,
This great big debt load we been carryin’
Maybe we oughta be Unitarian.
People gossip about who did what,
The ladies circle is a pain in the butt.
Want to slap their face or at least their wrist,
But I can’t cause I’m a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
We’re not big on shows and dances,
Mixed drinks or big romances,
I’ve been hugged but never French kissed,
That’s because I’m a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
Everybody wants to sit in the back pews,
Want the sermon to reflect their views,
Some of these Christians, they are the rudest.
What do you say we try being Buddhist?
The same ten people always volunteer,
Half of them old, the others just weird,
How do we ever manage to persist?
We do it by being Methodist!
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
People offer to help then they don’t remember,
It can make you almost lose your temper,
Sit and steam and clench your fist,
But you can’t hit them, you’re a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
Everyone’s afraid of change.
Don’t like anything new or strange.
Or we get our underwear in a twist,
That’s how it is with a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
We were founded by John Wesley,
Not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley,
We’re not so hip but we persist,
We go on being Methodist.
What does it mean to be Methodist? We’re currently in the midst of a confirmation class at church in which we attempt to answer that very question each Sunday with and for our confirmands. Ask the average Methodist on a Sunday morning what it means to be Methodist and you might hear something about John Wesley, or holiness of heart and life, or prevenient grace. But you’re just as likely to hear about casseroles, singing hymns, and being the via media between Baptists and Catholics.
The longer I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church the more I am convinced that, like with marriage, you can only figure it out along the way. One day you’ll be singing a hymn between the pews and realize, “Oh yeah, I do believe this!” Or you’ll walk down to receive the bread and cup and be overwhelmed by what Christ did, does, and will do. Or you’ll sit in the silence of a prayer and receive an assurance that, to use Wesley’s words, “Christ has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Every denomination carries its own blues. We Methodists even sing about them at the start of every annual conference: “What troubles have we seen / What conflicts have we passed / Fightings without, and fears within / Since we assembled last.”
But that is only part of the song we sing. For it ends thusly:
But out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford,
And hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast
Of His redeeming power,
Which saves us to the uttermost,
Till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross
Till we the crown obtain;
And gladly reckon all things loss,
So we may Jesus gain.
Let us therefore boast and rejoice even in our blues, knowing that Jesus is the difference who makes all the difference.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praise to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout along and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
A friend of mine, Kenneth Tanner, is a priest who defies all sorts of labels. He is both Charismatic and Anglican. His church has icons and their band plays songs by U2. He wears a collar just about everyday and, when necessary, he can say things you’d never imagine hearing from a priest. He serves a church called Holy Redeemer outside of Detroit, Michigan. Last week, he got an urgent phone call to go to a grocery store right near Oxford High School which had just experienced a mass school shooting.
Ken arrived and stood among the gathered parents who were all waiting to be reunited with their children immediately after the incident.
Teacher were there having just experienced the trauma themselves.
And even the employees of the grocery store did what they could to help.
Ken was there for hours, ministering among the families, helping to connect desperate kids with their desperate parents.
And, eventually, it became clear that a few families no longer had children with whom they could be reunited.
Ken, afterward, said that his experience of darkness in that moment, the total and upmost despair led him, once again, to the conclusion that either Christ is resurrected from the dead, or there is nothing.
I don’t know if it has been your experience in the past, but it seems like we are confronted by the harsh realities of life most during this season of the year. The rates of depression and suicide skyrocket during these weeks, more CPS reports are made, all while we decorate our houses with twinkling lights and we tune our radio to the same 25 songs being played over and over again.
When I talked to Ken after everything he witnessed and experienced last week he said, “Whenever I come this close to the darkness, even in the midst of its most horrifying degrees, the only thing I can cling to is that God is our salvation; God is the only hope we have.”
That, in a sense, is what the prophet Isaiah proclaims for us today: Surely God is my salvation! Come to the wells of salvation that will never run dry. Give thanks to the Lord, call upon God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the people, sing it out to the whole earth; God is with us.
That’s a powerful word for those who sit among the ruins, for those who are overwhelmed by the darkness, for those who don’t experience this as the most wonderful time of the year.
In life we are told again and again who we are. We are labeled by the world for all sorts of things, be it our jobs, vocations, mistakes, shortcomings, on and on.
We can receive one hundred compliments and one critique and it will be the critique that we hold on to. And, after time, we start to believe the critique, whatever it was, is more determinative regarding our identity than anything else. We internalize those things so deeply that we become what we fear.
And yet, in the life of faith, none of us really know who we are until God tells us.
We are who God says we are.
The church, at her best, functions as this proper mirror by which we can see ourselves. We lift up the cross as the reflection for us to really see who we really are.
The church exists to tell the truth – We are sinners in need of grace and Jesus is the power in our lives who makes us more than we could ever be otherwise.
And, let me be clear, that does not mean that the church exists to make people like you better and better. We don’t get together in order to rejoice in how good we are. We are not a gym nor are we a self-help program.
Jesus has already changed us. The only thing we have to do is act accordingly.
Which can be both extremely easy, and dangerously difficult.
Surely God is our salvation! That’s Good News! But’s it’s also hard news to receive because if God is our salvation, then it means that we are not.
And if there’s one thing we don’t like to do, it’s relinquishing control.
There will always be other things in life we chose to trust instead of the Lord. We will cling to the powers and the principalities in life, we will even lean on our own ability to do certain things.
But those idols will never give us life.
They cannot and will not bring us the love and the salvation we so desperately need.
There is no gift under the tree that will bring us the fulfillment we seek.
There is no promotion at work that will prevent us from the anxiety of what tomorrow might bring.
There is no perfect parent to fill us with just the the right amount of love just as there is no champion of a child who will fills the holes in our souls.
And yet, it’s those types of things that we turn to when we know not where else to turn.
Isaiah’s proclamation is meant for a people who have no home in this world. It is for strangers in a strange land. Whether it was in the exile of Babylon, or the places we find ourselves in today surrounded by objects and obsessions that promise life and only give death, this is a Word for us.
It is for us because Isaiah calls for us to celebrate the coming of God’s salvation to a land that is in the deep darkness of God’s judgment.
We don’t talk much about judgment in the church today save for the ever present reminder that we shouldn’t be so judgmental all the time. And yet God is the God of judgment. God holds up these scriptures and calls us to task.
Look at what we’ve done, look at what we’ve become! Those stories on the news, the ones that leaves us quaking, they are about us! This is the culture we created.
And that is a difficult word for us to hear! It is challenging because we are addicted to control. At least, we’re addicted to thinking we’re in control.
We make lists upon lists of all the right gifts for all the right people. We map out the perfect holiday meals and grocery stores runs to make sure we’re able to procure all the essential ingredients. We curate playlists of just the right songs to put us, and everyone else, in the right mood. And that’s just during Advent!
We also do what we can, explicitly and implicitly to make sure that we never have to bump into the wrong kinds of people. We turn on the news and assure ourselves that we’ve taken all the right precautions to make sure those kinds of things never happen to us (until they do). We build up these stories about who we are and what we stand for all the while things are crumbling all around us.
But Jesus is our Salvation! The strange new world of the Bible bombards us with the declaration that Jesus is all we need to live in a world out of control.
You see, following the Lord is just training for learning to live out of control. Faith is just a word for letting go of our obsession with trying to fix everything. Everything has already come out right because we have seen the end in Jesus.
The end that is Jesus makes it possible for us to go on even though we are not sure of where we are.
That’s not to say that we can’t do or change anything. To learn to live out of control guarantees that our lives will include suffering. Remember: these words are for people in exile. For those who live between the times; for Advent people.
Advent, therefore is the blessed and bewildering opportunity not to turn away from darkness, but to stare right into the heart of it knowing that the light of Christ will always shine in it. And then we take that light, whether in our prayers or in our singing or in our talking or our walking, and we live according to it rather than the darkness that creates nothing but fear.
We cling to the old rugged cross, that stands in the shadow of death, in anticipation of the new dawn that is redeeming grace.
Because if this is it, this world, in spite of efforts of good people, if this is it, then it’s nothing but unmitigated bad news.
I don’t know, maybe Advent isn’t the right time to think about all of this. I’ve got a job, I’ve got presents wrapped under the tree, I’ve got a family, maybe you’re like me. But there are people, lots of people, for whom this world, this life, has been one disappointing misery after another.
There are families in Michigan who will wake up on Christmas Day without a teenager they had just two weeks ago.
There are families here in Roanoke who have no bright hope of tomorrow because all they can see is the darkness.
There are people here in this church, right in these pews, who are terrified of the future because they see and hear nothing but bad news day after day.
And yet, hear the Good News: Jesus comes to make all things new.
So maybe that’s why you’re here. Perhaps you’ve come to church not for some tips and tricks on how to make it through another week. But instead you are here to have your minds blown and your imaginations opened.
Maybe you’re here for hope.
Hear me when I say there is no greater hope than this: God is our salvation. God does for us that which we cannot do. God saves us.
If our hope is only in ourselves and in the machinations of this world, then we have no hope at all.
But, by the grace of God, we have hope because hope is born in that little manger in Bethlehem, born to live, die, and live again, born to set us free, born to return with the resurrection of the dead, born to make all things new.
In the end, that’s why we set up the decorations. We do so in defiance of the powers and principalities that rule through darkness. We do so as a reminder to ourselves that Jesus has redeemed us from the temptation of believing that violence is the only answer. We do so in anticipation of the One who returns to us with holes in his hands and says, “I forgive you.”
We are called to practice resurrection. That is, we Christians live according to the Good News of the Gospel which means we are different. We belong to a new age and a new time and a new kingdom in which death is not the end.
Our rejoicing, therefore, is not naïveté.
We don’t come here to pretend that everything out there isn’t actually out there.
We come here precisely because the darkness is so overwhelming, and we need something we can cling to in the midst of it all.
That something has a name: Jesus Christ
Surely God is our salvation; that is why we rejoice.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 5.16-18
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
My son has a penchant for exaggeration.
(He probably gets it from his Father)
We decided to get him a Lego Star Wars Advent calendar in which, every day, he gets to open a new (tiny) lego set that he gets to build after consuming his breakfast. The first week of December resulted in a miniature Razorcrest (from The Mandalorian), Poe Dameron wearing a BB-8 holiday sweater, and many more.
And this morning, after scarfing down his pancakes, he ripped through the package and put together a red Sith Trooper in 7.5 seconds and triumphantly declared, “This is the best Advent ever!” while grinning from ear to ear.
When was the last time you felt truly joyful?
It’s a worthy question for Christian reflection, particularly in a time such as ours – a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the familiar no longer a possible reality.
“Rejoice always!” So Paul implores the church in Thessalonica. Notably, Paul’s call to joy is not a suggestion not merely an opportunity for contemplation, it is a command.
But how can we rejoice (always) when it feels like there’s nothing to rejoice about?
Joy, as we often speak about it, is a feeling. Like my son with his legos, it is a moment of bliss or happiness that leads to some sort of physical reaction like him smiling so much his mouth started to hurt.
But joy, properly understood, is also an expression, a kind of communication. However, it is not simply telling others that you are happy – it is a telling that is also an invitation to share in the telling.
Joy, to put it another way, is meant to be infectious.
At her best, the church is a people who invite each other to rejoice together. It’s why the covenants of marriage and baptism and not for the people getting married or baptized alone – they are a promise made by the community for the community.
We, that is the church, rejoice always, we pray constantly, and we give thanks in all circumstances. Interestingly, for Paul, joy comes first. Unless we are filled with joy we cannot pray and unless we pray we cannot give thanks.
Now, there’s (of course) a potential for a horrendous reading of this command in which Christians, “stay on the sunny side” despite all evidence of the contrary through their lives – like the meme of the dog drinking coffee in a house on fire saying “this is fine.” Rejoicing always, in that way (which is to say: improperly), can be used as the means by which we reject responsibility for others and even for ourselves.
Remember, however, Jesus did not ignore the truth and the brokenness of life – he wept for Lazarus, he turned the tables in the temple, and he was even afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Christians are a people commanded to rejoice not in spite of the world, but simply because we know how the story ends. We can rejoice because we have found what was lost, ourselves.
Our joy is in the cross – a sign to us and to all that God chose to suffer for the sake of the world.
The strange new world of the Bible reveals God’s strange and confounding love for us in spite of us – we open up the pages to discover that God had joy in being one with us and that God took on all the consequences of being one of us; God incarnated love in the person of Jesus Christ for a people not good at loving in the first.
Our joy is inherently Adventen because it holds two seemingly-opposed things together at once – like the already but not yet, the once and future king, the cross and the empty tomb.
Joy, Christian joy, is the joy of knowing what awaits us even in death. And that joy gives us the strength to pray without ceasing and the courage to give thanks for a gift we simply do not deserve.
We have a joy to express and to share because God is coming again, bursting onto the scene like our favorite uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other with no other hope in the world other than to party (read: rejoice) forever and ever.
This is the Good News.
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.
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.
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
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.
It doesn’t get much better than this for the church. Out of death, life!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
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.
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?