Get Lost

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Get Lost

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Justice Is Blind

Luke 18.1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The courtroom was eerily silent as everyone waited for the judge to enter. 

The jury had been through the wringer answering particular questions that would determine whether or not they were fit to serve.

The lawyers sat at their respective tables with their clients looking over all their prepared statements and pieces of evidence.

The stenographer even sat in raptured silence with her fingers hovering over the keys.

When the bailiff ordered the room to rise they responded accordingly as the judge, dressed in black, made his way to the highly raised chair at the front of the courtroom.

“What’s on the docket today?” He mumbled as everyone sat down again.

The clerk promptly carried over a stack of cases through which the judge began to scan, until he lifted his eyes above the rim of his glasses and looked at down at the plaintiff. She was sitting there in her Sunday best trying desperately to keep her smile as sincere as possible. 

And then the judge blurted out, “Weren’t you in here last week?”

She unfolded the hands in her lap and very calmly replied, “Indeed I was, and I’m still looking for justice.”

And with that the judge ordered her out of the room so that he could get on with the real work of justice.

The next day each of the common characters went through their repetitive routines until the judge ascended to his perch and was bewildered again to see the same woman, in the same spot as she was the day before.

“Ma’am, how many times will I have to kick you out of my courtroom before you learn your lesson.”

“As long as it takes to get my justice, your honor.”

For weeks they went through this new pattern every morning, and eventually it started to wear on the judge. At first he relished in his commands to the bailiff to remove the woman by any means necessary. But every day she came back, looking a little worse than the day before. 

He had no pity for her, he was still familiar with her case and he knew there was nothing to be done. And yet every night he lay awake in bed troubled by her bringing her troubles into his courtroom. The black robe felt heavier and heavier each time he put it on and he discovered that he was starting to develop an ulcer which he attributed to the woman.

But then one night, the judge came to himself and realized that if he just gave her what she wanted, she would stop bothering him and he could be done with the whole thing. So he gave her the justice she was hoping for.

The end.

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Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like the widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like the bailiff dutifully following orders. No even like the stenographer observing and recording every minute detail.

God is like the unjust judge.

So, I guess, it’s good to be bad?

Jesus, here, breaks a lot of common conventions, particularly when it comes to story telling or, dare I say, preaching. Jesus, unlike your esteemed pastor this morning, did not have the benefit of attending a highly regarded seminary in which he would’ve learned about the importance of using good examples of good people to show the goodness of God.

Instead, Jesus hands us this story in which God, as the unjust judge, is supposed to sound good.

I don’t envy the judge in the story, particularly when considering the fact that the judge ultimately takes on two subjects the rest of us find diametrically opposed to one another. The business of grace and the business of judgment. 

This is a tough dance for the church to do no matter what the circumstances are. 

We want to be able to hold these things at the same time when they seem to be completely opposed to one another – we want to be gracious toward all people but we also don’t want people getting away with everything under the sun – we want to tell people that God loves them no matter what but we also want to make sure they know there are certain behaviors that God, in fact, does not love.

And we know how the story is supposed to go. After all, the judge is in the business of the law and therefore should be just in his sentence. But in the end of Jesus’ tale, the judge breaks all the rules of his vocation and actually seems to put himself out of the judging business altogether.

The judge is bothered not by any normal character under the law, but specifically a widow. To our contemporary ears we can still imagine the plight of the widow in this circumstance, but in the time of Jesus to be a widow was to have no hope in the world whatsoever. For a woman to lose her husband was to become a complete and total loser – no social standing, no economic prosperity, no property period. And yet, this widow refuses to accept her deadness in life – she shows up at the courthouse looking for justice and the hope of discovering some kind of wealth in the midst of her total poverty.

She really is dead, at least according to the values of the world and she knows it. The widow knows, deep in her bones, that she has no hope in the world and knows that the judge will not give her the justice she wants, but she also has no other choice but to ask. 

And, for reasons that appear suspect and strange to us, the judge decides to change his mind regarding the plight of the widow. We would hope that the judge would be moved by pity, or hope, or even faith, but Jesus plainly declares those things have nothing to do with it. 

The judge changes his mind simply because it will make things more convenient for the judge. The judge is willing to be unjust just so he can have some peace of mind. 

Jesus then continues by telling those with ears to hear to listen to the unjust judge!

Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to be seen as bad, to let God’s justice be blind, for no other reason that the fact that it will get all of us off of his back. 

Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in our futile pursuits of moral, spiritual, financial, and all other forms of purity. 

In other words: While we were still yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

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There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us! 

We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works. 

But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”

This is Good News because, like the parable of the lost sheep, God’s never going to give up on us. The problem that we don’t like to encounter is admitting that we are, in fact, lost.

Jesus jumps from the story to some sort of moral with the declaration that God delights in being merciful, whether we deserve it or not. And more than that, God will be merciful on God’s people soon.

This story is told as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. This is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you. 

It is the stuff of wonder and awe that God chose to drop dead to give all of us a break. Like the widow’s verdict, God was tired of the world turning to self-righteous competitions and judgments thinking it would lead to perfection. And while watching the world tear itself apart, God destroyed God’s self rather than letting us destroy ourselves. 

The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.

God hung up the black robe and the gavel the day his son hung on the cross. No one but an unjust judge could have ruled in our favor when we don’t deserve it. No one but a crazy God like ours could have been merciful to throw a party and invite the very people that we wouldn’t.

And yet, the parable is not over. It ends with a lingering question from the lips of Jesus: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

The implied answer, much to our disappointment and embarrassment, is no. This story prohibits us from believing that any of us is just enough for the judge. We struggle with faith. Not because we don’t know whether to believe God exists or not, but because we can’t believe that God would do for us what God did for us. Our faith trembles in the recognition that the us in that sentence is us. 

We worship a crucified God, a God who wins by losing, and that’s a hard thing for us to have faith in because we are part of a world that refuses to let go of our insatiable desire to win all the time.

And this really is the heart of Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge.

The confounding nature of God’s work has made this whole parable series difficult for me, as I imagine it has been difficult for many of you. The parables are challenging because Jesus’ stories run counter to just about everything we’ve been told over and over again.

We call the Good News good, but more often than not we preach it and receive it as bad news.

I can stand up here week after week and tell you that God is angry with our behavior. I can proclaim that God is so good that none of us will ever have a chance of getting close to God. I can spend all of my time convincing all of us to get our acts together in order to appease God.

I can even command you to fill the offering plates to the brim enough to get all of us into heaven.

But the one thing I can’t do, the thing we almost never do, is tell the truth that God cares not one bit for our guilt, or our good deeds, or even our tithes. We can’t rejoice in the ridiculous Good News that God has gotten rid of all the oppressive godly requirements we think are part of our ticket out of death. We can’t talk about those things because it sounds too good or too crazy.

And here’s the truth: God is indeed crazy, and so are we. 

God stays on the cross instead of coming down and punishing us until we behave properly.

God has already given us more than we could ever possibly earn or deserve.

And those two things are really unjust when you think about it. 

They are unjust because God, our God, chooses to be blind to who we are.

There’s no better news than that. Amen. 

A Man Without A Church

Devotional:

Psalm 82.3-4

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

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I have shared on a number of occasions that one of my favorite writers is the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I was introduced to his novels and short stories when I was in middle school and quickly read through everything he published. I know that it can sound strange to hear that Vonnegut is one of the favorite writers of a pastor since he basically loathed organized religion and spoke avidly of his own humanism. To quote, “We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.” 

And yet, some of Vonnegut’s thoughts on the church speak, to me, a better truth than is often heard in the church. In his writing and speaking he could both critique and admire the church in a way that is instructive and ultimately productive. 

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Vonnegut died in 2007 two weeks before he was scheduled to speak in his home town of Indianapolis for an event celebrating his life and achievements. The speech he wrote for that event was the last thing he wrote before he died and it contains a lot of his more memorable contributions to the literary ethos. However, there is something in the speech that does appear anywhere else in Vonnegut’s corpus, to my knowledge:

“I got a letter a while back from a man who had been a captive in the American penal system since he was sixteen years old. He is now forty-two, and about to get out. He asked me what he should do. I told him: ‘Join a church.’ And now please note that I have raised my right hand. And that means I am not kidding, that whatever I say next I believe to be true. So here goes: The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime wasn’t our contribution to the defeat of the Nazis, in which I played such a large part, or Ronald Regan’s overthrow of Godless Communism, in Russia at least. The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans, both in and out of government, and simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased. Their churches helped them do that.”

These words, in fact some of the last words from Vonnegut, are all the more striking when considering the fact that he hailed from Indiana which, when he was a kid, contained the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and was the last state to have a lynching of a African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

At its best, the church has been the place in which justice was given to the weak and orphaned and where the rights of the lowly were maintained. The church has, at times, rescued the weak and needy by delivering them from the hand of the wicked.

But, at its worst, the church has been the place where injustice has rained down like waters, where the marginalized have been further marginalized. 

It was not that long ago, all things considered, when African-Americans were forced to sit in the balconies of churches rather than with everyone else. It was not that long ago that Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11am on Sunday mornings to be the most racially segregated moment of the week. The prejudices of the past are still very present here in the present.

Vonnegut often described himself “a man without a country.” But reading his last bit of writing makes me wonder if he was actually “a man without a church.”

For if the church is not the place where justice is present, where the rights of the lowly are maintained, and the weak and needy are delivered, then what in the world are we doing?

The Original OG

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2.1-17, Mark 7.24-37). Jason serves as the senior pastor of Annandale UMC, in Annandale VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dawgs, big buts, long car trips with your mother-in-law, new names, sowing injustice, being surrounded by God, gratitude for the Word, incompatibility, and Jesus’ sighs. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Original OG

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Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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Yesterday morning, while countless Christians were passing the peace, or humming the hymns, or celebrating communion all over the country, a man carried a Ruger assault-style rifle into a small Baptist church in southern Texas and murdered 26 people. Officials have reported that the associate pastor was walking up to the pulpit to preach when the gunfire began and that the victims ranged in age from 5 to 72.

Within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened in their own churches.

It was about a month ago that we were all reeling from the news that a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas leaving 58 dead and 546 injured.

And within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened.

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Is God tired of all our talking (and tweeting)? Are the prayers that we offer in the midst of a crisis, and then forget about until the next thing comes, being heard? Is God listening to all of this noise?

What would it look like to let justice roll down like waters in a world that lives in the shadow of the cross? When did we let the words we offer become more important than living lives of righteousness? Is the noise we produce so deafening that we can no longer hear what God has to say?

There’s no easy solution to the recent horrific shooting tragedies. We are clearly a people divided on just about everything these days, and in particular when in comes to gun rights and gun control. But when it comes to the realm of the church, when we think about what this all means for the kingdom of God, we have to ask ourselves if God has grown tired of all our talking.

This is not to say that we should cease to pray. In fact, we should pray without ceasing. But our prayers that we offer to God cannot be limited to words we toss around while our hands are clenched together. Sometimes the most faithful prayers are the ones we make with our actions.

Devotional – Isaiah 42.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 42.1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

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I need to apologize. At least, I need to apologize to the people of St. John’s who were present in worship on January 1, 2017. We started a new sermon series on “Dumb Things Christians Say” and I decided it would be good to start with “Everything Happens For A Reason.” It is one of those trite and cliché Christianisms that are forever being flung around without anyone thinking about the consequences of such a statement.

I began the sermon with a story and a quote from Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who recently said that “It wasn’t Russia who intervened in the election of Donald Trump, it was God.” I then went on to theologically proclaim the strange tension Christians live in between and all-powerful God and a free humanity; God rules this world but gives us the freedom to act in the world.

The thrust of the end of the sermon went like this: “Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.

But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.”

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Upon listening to the audio of the sermon, and rereading it before posting it online, I realized that I was very heavy-handed with my language about President-Elect Trump, and that I inadvertently compared his election with the suffering of innocent people in car accidents.

What I should have said was that even though Donald Trump was elected by the people of the United States of America, and not by some divine act of providence, God still uses people like Donald Trump to make God’s will incarnate on earth. The beautiful wonder of the Lord is that God works in and through individuals in ways that we can scarcely imagine; a chance conversation, a fleeting dream, a subtle nudge in the right direction. We can have hope in the Lord regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office because we know that God is the one who has the final Word. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection.

Jesus is the servant who God upholds, the chosen one in whom the Lord delights. Jesus is the one who brings forth comfort to the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to pray for our president in order that he may discern how to bring peace and justice to this world in a way that resonates with Jesus’ peace and justice.

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  

Weekly Devotional Image

For me, music makes the worship service. I can listen to a mediocre sermon, but if the organist has been hitting all the notes perfectly I can walk away feeling filled with the Spirit. I can be ignored as a first time visitor, but if the gathered body sings with full vigor I can leave the service feeling that I have encountered the living God. I can witness borderline heretical theology in a bulletin, but if the musicians are truly glorifying the Lord through their instruments, I can believe that the service has been redeemed.

I started playing drums for contemporary worship services when I was in 9th grade. I played all through high school, college, and seminary for a variety of churches in a variety of places. It is difficult to describe the doxological feeling that I experience when playing drums during a service, but suffice it to say that I feel closer to God in those moments than many others. Contemporary services are not for everyone, even I will admit that I enjoy playing for those services rather than experiencing them in the pews, but they help connect a large portion of Christians to the living God in a way that shapes, molds, and grows their faith.

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When I was in college I began playing for the Crave service that was a part of the Wesley Foundation at James Madison University. Every Sunday afternoon the band would get together at Asbury UMC to practice for a few hours before the service began in the evening. We would play songs that got people placing their hands in the air and praising God. We would play songs that got people dancing in the pews. We would play songs that were so familiar and catchy that I could actually hear people singing the words over the volume of the drum-kit.

However, even when we were playing at our best, our music paled in comparison with the one night that we left the church and wandered around downtown Harrisonburg. Instead of gathering for the typical service (3-4 songs, prayer, sermon, communion, 1 song, benediction) we met on the steps of the church and walked downtown to pray for our city. We stopped at specific locations and joined hands to prayerfully lift up our community, and in particular we prayed over the local courthouse so that “justice might roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

You can have the best music in the world at your church, but when the music becomes the only life-giving part of your discipleship formation, when acts of justice and righteousness have gone missing, we limit the depth and beauty that we can experience. Music is most powerful when it points away from ourselves to God, and when it inspires us to be righteous outside of worship.

This week, let us look for the moments when we can let justice roll down like waters for others around us. Let us truly listen to the words of our Christian songs and live them out so that our righteousness can be like an ever-flowing stream.