The Unholy Club

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Song of Solomon 2.8-13, Psalm 45.1-2, 6-9, James 1.17-27, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23). Josh is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Karl Barth, uncomfortable texts, Ted Lasso, bald prophets, the BCP, honesty, sin sniffing, the brother of the Lord, church graffiti, and table fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Unholy Club

Lucky Bums

Psalm 84.12

O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

The praise service had been hitting all the marks – the band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their folding chairs. The gymnasium truly transformed into a place of worship and the people couldn’t get enough of it.

The sermon was delivered with a beaming smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side, celebrate successes, and to praise God in all times and in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether or not it was the caffeine, people were jazzed for Jesus.

Following the service, as was customary, the preacher stood by the door and shook hands with the people of God. His smile remained bright and shiny as each family, couple, and individual walked by.

Until one woman stormed past him and everyone else while muttering words under her breath.

The preacher apologized to the couple in front of him for the woman’s behavior and shouted at her as she sped across the parking lot: “Don’t forget to praise God!”

She stopped dead in her tracks, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her index finger into his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me feel what I’m feeling, and I’m never coming back.”

And she never did.

Happiness is such a fickle thing. Happiness comes and goes like the wind and we rarely hold onto it as long as we’d like to. The demands of life always catch up with us and for as much as might want to “keep on the sunny side,” the night will come. 

The psalmist writes, “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.” And the word “happy” is notable because in other translations it is rendered as “blessed.” 

And there’s a big difference between happiness and blessedness.

The differing translations come from the Greek word MAKARIOS which, at times, can mean happy, blessed, contented, and a slew of other things.

And yet, the words we use carry great meaning. For instance, happiness is often seen as a feeling that can change depending on one’s internal or external circumstances. Such happiness ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors. Happiness, then, is somewhat under our control. That is: we can make ourselves feel happy by engaging in certain activities.

But being blessed has little, if anything to do with our control and agency. We are blessed by others and not by ourselves. In other words, our blessedness is not within our own control but only something offered to us like a gift.

In the church we call it grace.

We are blessed not because of our own machinations or because we have earned it or deserved it. We are blessed because we are swept up in God’s goodness. The acts of God in Christ make us blessed.

Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century, translates being blessed like this: “You lucky bum!” To be blessed by God is nothing more than receiving something that we never should have received in the first place except for the fact that God delights in doing so. 

Jesus doesn’t wait on the arms of the cross until we are happy enough or good enough or repentant enough before he declares forgiveness upon us and all of creation.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we get our lives sorted out, or right all of the wrongs, or exhibit perfect mortality before he returns to us resurrected.

Our happiness, whatever it might be, is fleeting and fragile. But our blessedness is sure and forever because it comes to us from the only One who can offer it in the first place.

Ours is the kingdom! What a bunch of lucky bums we are!

Standing In The Midst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elected Rejected

Isaiah 43.1

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Election is, often, a dirty word in the church. In our particularly problematic political times we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and partisan ideologies. We encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions in regard to such matters. 

However, even more divisive than American electoral politics is the church’s struggle to respond to the Doctrine of Election.

Put simply – The Doctrine of Election (attempts) to explain the lengths of God’s sovereignty. Or, perhaps even more simply, it is a theological way to respond to questions like “Why did God allow this/that to happen?”

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We, of course, don’t care much for mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions. We like things being neat and orderly. However, God often hands us the complete opposite.

And so, because we like to make order out of chaos, we have disagreed throughout the history of the church about God’s electing work and we now have the great mosaic of denominations rather than “dwelling together in unity.”

Enter Karl Barth. [Barth was a very significant Christian theologian in the middle of the 20th century.]

In II.2 of the Church Dogmatics Barth sets out to define what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer about how election is not something to be earned or deserved, but simply is the way that it is. But then, in a profound and rather long excursus, Barth compares the elected and the rejected characters throughout the Old Testament in order to bring home exactly what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ.

Cain and Abel – The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision on God’s behalf concerning them. However, even though Abel is clearly favored and Cain is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain. Notably, even though Cain killed his brother, God promises to protect Cain’s life.

Jacob and Esau – Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the little heel grabber) who ultimately receives the birthright and the blessing. However, God does not abandon either of them to their own devices, but promises to bless the world through their offspring.

Rachel and Leah – Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. However, God does not reject Rachel and she, eventually, gives birth to Joseph.

Joseph and his brothers – Joseph is rejected by his brothers and self off into slavery. However, Joseph is instrumental in the deliverance of God’s people from famine who are then brought into the land of Egypt.

On and on we could go. Barth’s central point is that even though certain figures appear rejected by God, they are, in fact, blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus

Without them the great narrative simply isn’t possible.

And then, in Jesus, we discover both the elect and the reject. The Elect Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us. 

He is regaled by the crowds and dismissed by the religious authorities. 

He is celebrated by the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to be chased out of town for preaching a sermon about himself. 

He is surrounded by followers who hang on his every word only to be abandoned by all of them when he, himself, hung on the cross. 

And yet, how does Jesus choose to use some of his final earthly breaths?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

We, all of us, deserve rejection. We all choose to do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. That, in a sense, is what Lent is all about. This liturgical season is focused on considering the condition of our condition. 

To borrow an expression of Paul’s: There is nothing good in us. 

We, to put it another way, are up the creek without a paddle.   

And yet, strangely enough, the elected rejected Jesus Christ takes all of our sins, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever. Thanks be to God. 

Breaking The Law To Hear The Gospel

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith.

And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas week almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

Below you can find three of the most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord. To you!”

Merry (almost) Christmas.

Give God The Verbs

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben DeHart about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Luke 1.46b-55, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38). Ben is the Associate Rector at Calvary-St. George’s Church in NYC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including phenomenal music, the uncontrollable God, riffing on the Magnificat, Kingdom ethics, the Prayer of Humble Access, obedience, impossible possibility, Israel’s calling, Hell, and Fleming Rutledge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Give God The Verbs

There Is Still Someone Who Reigns!

Joshua 24.24

The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep.

Thurneysen explained later that most of their conversation covered the world situation at the time and that Barth’s final words were these:

Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III.)

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he ridiculed the United States for his criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote against the Vietnam War in his final years.

And today, oddly enough, it brings me great comfort that with some of his final breaths Barth remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us still reigns. His final words are an ever-ringing reminder that, as Christians, we know how the story ends which frees us to serve and obey the Lord.

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on the TV or scroll through Twitter for a few minutes – we’re clearly a people who have no idea what we’re doing), but because God chooses to do so in God’s infinite freedom. In the end, that’s exactly what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted by the only One who could – The judged Judge has come to stand in our place.

God reigns not from a White House, or from a Parliament, or from a Situation Room, but from the hard wood of the cross. 

God reigns not by merit and demerit, but by grace and mercy. 

God reigns not through threats and accusations, but through forgiveness and reconciliation.

Which is all to say, Christians, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, see the world differently. We rebel against the insidious power of despair and we seek out ways to be for and serve the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We know and believe that someone reigns. That someone is the One who came to take away the sins of the world.

Thanks be to God. 

This Shall Be A Sign To You

Psalm 107.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 

On Sunday countless churches across the world (at least those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary) were treated to the Gospel reading when Jesus reminds those with ears to hear that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.

Jesus does so in the Gospel of Matthew as a response to a lawyer who was seeking to trap him in his words. And Jesus, being Jesus, not only responds with an answer that left everyone speechless (“No one dared ask him another question”) but he stole his answer from other parts of the Bible. 

Which is to say, Jesus’ pronouncement about loving God and neighbor isn’t unique to Jesus. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” come straight from Deuteronomy 6:5. And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18. 

The more you read the scriptures, the more you enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more you realize that it is indeed strange because it is constantly repeating and re-interpreting itself. Karl Barth put it this way: “The Old Testament does not end in the New Testament but continues in it, just as the New Testament is already present in the Old Testament.” 

The whole of the revealed Word of God is a living and confounding witness to the repetition of God with God’s people.

A few days ago, after putting the finishing touches on my sermon about Jesus’ treatise on love, I came across an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Some enterprising Christians took the time to diagram out all the chapters in the Bible (from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22) and draw connections backwards and forwards between all the cross-references. In the end, they produced an image with 63,779 connections throughout the entirety of the scriptures and, in God’s strange and wonderful way of doing things, the image came out looking like a rainbow.

How perfect.

The sign of the first rainbow in Genesis after the flood was and is a sign for us of the covenant God has made with God’s creation. And now, seeing another rainbow connecting scriptures, we are reminded of God’s promise to dwell among us, to redeem us, and to love us in spite of us.

The Bible is complex and diverse. It is not something to be consumed just like any other book from front to back. It is a mine that never stops producing incredible gems.

The Bible also contains just about every kind of literary genre from poetry to pose to genealogies to aphorisms and on and on. It can remind us of the same things over and over again or it can smack us in the head with a new insight for the very first time.

The Bible is alive and ever new even though the canon was finished a long time ago. That it is alive and ever new is indicative of the Spirit’s power to bring forth light on something previously shadowed.

Basically, the Bible is awesome. 

Preaching Like God Is Speaking

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3.4b-14, Matthew 21.33-46). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including robust theology, circuity, abundant coffee, God’s Top 10, sinful clergy, Karl Barth’s Gottingen Dogmatics, sabbath observance, Pauline swagger, parabolic utterances, and enjoying the fruit of the vine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Like God Is Speaking

Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen.