This Is The Day…

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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I ran a half-marathon yesterday afternoon. 13.1 miles in roughly two hours all over the Woodbridge area. I was supposed to the run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC last Saturday but it was canceled in light of the Coronavirus. However I had been training for long enough that I figured, “Why not just go out and see if I can do it?”

The weather yesterday was perfect, giving extra meaning to the “this is the day that the Lord has made” and I decided to rejoice and be glad in it by putting one foot in front of the other until I put in the requisite miles.

Now, a day later, I can tell you there wasn’t much to rejoice about.

Or to put it a different way, my legs are sore!

During the months of training I was looking forward to being surrounded by scores of people all running toward the same goal. I was excited about the prospect of passing the finish line to be embraced by my family in celebration. I even anticipated the proud feeling of wearing around the medal for the rest of the day.

Yesterday was different.

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I ran all alone for two hours. I didn’t even tell my family that I was going to do it. And the only prize for completing it was knowing that I did it.

A lot of us have been experiencing profound feelings of isolation as the Coronavirus has forced us to remain physically separated from one another and forced us to limit our interactions outside of our homes. For some of us we’ve retreated into new or familiar books, we’ve binged terrible and incredible television shows, or we’ve picked up the phone to call people we’ve needed to reconnect with for a long time.

But for others of us, we’ve retreated further into our minds and our worries and our anxieties. We keep checking out bank accounts and wonder how we’re going to make it through all of this. We see updates from others on social media that make it seem like they are having a vacation while social distancing while our time have felt nerve wracking. 

And yet, as Christians, we believe that each new day is a gift from the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we have to force ourselves into optimism, but it does call us to rejoice knowing we’ve been given another day. The season of Lent, the season we’re in right now, is an ever-present reminder that tomorrow is never promised and that the bell will toll for us all. We didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us of this but it certainly has helped to focus our attention on that which we cannot take for granted. 

I for one am grateful that I was able to get outside yesterday and run, even if my body feels miserable today. I am grateful I have another day to spend time with my family. But most of all I am grateful to know that God has not abandoned us to our own devices. 

The season of Lent always ends with Easter – a reminder that death is not the end.

If nothing else, that is certainly worth rejoicing. 

Subverting Expectations

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for Palm Sunday [A] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21.1-11). Todd is a Baptist pastor serving Snow Hill Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including age differences, The Jesus I Never Knew, perfect subversion, the reject stone, The Princess Bride, paid participation, parades, unpacking Hosanna, and keeping the cross in Easter. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Subverting Expectations

 

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Ezekiel 37.1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. 

In this strange new time I keep referring to as Coronatide, we have been physically separated by orders of law and state, but we are still bound to one another through the Lord. And yet, it has become apparent with every Facebook post calling on people to answer questions in order to learn more about one another that we really don’t know much about each other at all. 

Well, knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, I’m going to share something that you do know about me, no matter who you are, and something I know about you, no matter who you are.

We’re all going to die.

What a way to start a sermon!

Or, as it is written in one of my favorite books, “In the world according to Garp, we’re all terminal cases.”

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That’s what we were affirming on Ash Wednesday, which now feels like an eternity ago, and it’s what Lent reminds us at every turn: In the midst of life we are in death. And, frankly, we didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us. We didn’t need the empty supermarkets, and the abandoned jungle gyms, and the vacant school parking lots to remind us that no one makes it out of this life alive.

Though plenty of us love believing the contrary. We are suckers for the advertisements of products that promise youthful glows, and smoothed wrinkles, and tighter waistlines. We use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s void. We even check the updates on how fast the virus is spreading in certain places and think, “Well surely, it won’t happen like that to me.”

But then it does.

Or, to put it another way, a few weeks ago, before everything really ramped up, I took my 3 year old son out for lunch at a local Chic-fil-a. We ate our waffle fries in beatific silence, smiling as the ketchup smudged our cheeks, and then my boy gave me a look that said, “Dad. Bathroom time.” We quickly cleaned off our messy hands and faces, and bee-lined for the restrooms. After business was taken care of, a man walked in, used the stall next to us, and walked out. To which my son shouted, “Uh, Dad, that guy didn’t wash his hands.”

And I, being the great parent I am, said, “Elijah, say it louder next time.”

In ways both simple and profound, we like to pretend like the one universal truth is actually a lie.

But it’s not.

Ezekiel, contrary to our dispositions, knew the truth of our finitude. Should you have any extra time on your hands while social distancing, go read through the book of Ezekiel, there’s some wild stuff inside. But for today, we get to see, through Zeke’s eyes, the valley of the dry bones. 

It must’ve been a particularly striking and relevant image for the bizarre prophet considering his own life situation. Prior to this text, we learn that Ezekiel has been on somewhat of a rampage against God’s people, indicting them for all the had done and left undone. The people God chose to change the world, the people with whom God had covenanted, the people God loved with reckless abandon had abandoned the Lord – they had given themselves over to idolatry.

Idolatry, for the people in the back, is believing and acting as if anything or anyone can give us what only God can give.

Idolatry is believing wealth says more about who a person is than the fact they were made in the image of God.

Idolatry is looking out for our own interests at the expense of the marginalized.

Idolatry is assuming that we can save ourselves.

The people of God worshiped whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the ignored the plight of the needy, and they believed they were entirely in control of their destines.

And the Lord spoke into their midst and said, “You want idolatry? I’ll give you idolatry!”

They were dragged off as captives to become strangers in a strange land: Babylon. A foreign place where the land was dominated by colossal statues and overwhelming debauchery. In short: a place totally at odds with what the worship and love of God is supposed to look like.

And it’s from this place of exile, maybe something a few of us can identify with right now, that Ezekiel speaks of his vision.

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The Lord drags Ezekiel out to a graveyard, that stretches as far as the eye can see, and all his eyes can see are bones piled upon bones, and they’re all dry. And the Lord says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only you know.” And the Lord says, “Tell this to the bones: O dry bones the Lord will give you life! The Lord will breathe upon you and the sinews and the flesh will string together and you will live because God is God!”

Ezekiel does what the Lord commanded, and the earth trembles beneath his feet, and like a scene befitting a horror film, Ezekiel watches as bones come together, and tendons and muscles are stretched and skin forms until a vast multitude stands on their feet and they are alive.

“Look” says the Lord, “these bones are the whole of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But look what I did for them! I will bring you back and you shall know that I am the Lord!”

This is strange stuff, even for the Bible. 

The Lord promises to reconstitute the very people who had given up on the Lord.

God breathes life into the bones of those who destroyed life time and time again.

God makes a way where there was no way.

And the bones live.

Contrary to how so many of us speak about church or hear about church, this confounding moment in the valley of the dry bones has not one thing to do with us and whatever it is we think we bring to the table. 

Notice: The people of God have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. They died and were buried in their sins and in the trespasses and God says, “Ok, time to make something new.” 

They didn’t deserve it and they certainly didn’t earn it. 

Notice: God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to go out and give the bones a ten-step process on how to get their lives sorted out. God doesn’t tell the people to pray three times a day in order to earn their salvation. God doesn’t wait for the people to memorize their favorite book of the Bible before the bones starting coming back together.

God raises the bones to life because that’s what God does!

I hope you hear that as a hopeful word. Because even at our best, we’re not very good.

When we hear about the valley of the dry bones, if we hear about it at all, we are often so caught up with the striking physical details that we don’t take a moment to really think about it. We have the benefit, if you want to think about it that way, of knowing whose bones we’re walking on whenever we go through a cemetery. But Ezekiel could only see bones upon bones.

But who did they belong to?

Scripture answer the question for us, of course. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel?” But even a statement like that warrants further reflection. Because if the bones are the whole house of Israel, that means that some of those bones belong to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, the elect and the reject. It means that buried among that pile of bones are the good and the bad, the sinners and the saints, the first and the last.

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I don’t know what you all have been up to these last few weeks, but I’ve seen and heard countless stories about people going above and beyond to help people in need. Distilleries shutting down production of their whiskey in order to reformat their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Businesses donating medical masks to hospitals in need. Neighbors picking up groceries for the most vulnerable. Basically, stories of saints.

But for every positive story there’s plenty of stories that demonstrate the opposite.

Individuals hoarding up precious supplies and equipment only to price gouge individuals and business who really need them. Corporations calling on furloughed workers to start GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses rather than offering financial assistance. And countless politicians using our present crisis as an opportunity to shore up votes for the next election cycle.

And that’s not to mention the great number of pastors who have, foolishly, assured their respective congregations that they can keep worshipping together or going out in public because the Lord will protect them in all of their comings and goings.

Basically, stories of sinners.

In the end, we’re all just a bunch of dry bones sitting in the bottom of a valley. Even the best of us cannot prevent the bell that tolls for us with our perfect spirituality or magnificent morality. Even the worst of us cannot so take advantage of others to stop the inevitability of our own demise.  

Remember, in the time of Jesus, it was all of the so-called “good” institutions, both the religious and the secular, following all of the proper protocols, and calling for a vote, people like you and me joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. In all of our goodness and our badness we nailed that man to a cross and hung him up for the world to see. 

Stories end in graveyards. I’ve been in enough of them with the dirt in my hands laying it over the bodies of the dead to know it is true. I’ve seen enough tears spilt upon the tombstones of the familiar and the stranger to know that the one thing we all truly share is our death. I’ve listened to enough conversations and met with enough people to know that is our deaths that frighten us the most even if we do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.

The disciples knew it too. That’s why they abandoned the Lord the closer he got to death, it’s why they avoided him on the cross, and it’s why they only trudged up to his grave three days later.

And yet, one of the greatest messages of scripture, a message as plain as day in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is that in the end it’s not up to us to save ourselves. We will be buried among saints and sinners, our bones will dry and scatter, and only God, Father of the Incarnate Word, is the one who raises the dead. 

If you find yourself thinking, “My life is all dried up, I’m stuck in the confines of my home unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I have nothing to hope for, I feel completely cut off” then you are in good company. God can work with that. Amen. 

Feeling Your Feelings

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent [A] (Ezekiel 37.1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8.6-11, John 11.1-45). Todd is a Baptist pastor serving Snow Hill Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Baptist autonomy, cross denominational friendships, dry bones, speaking creation, holding dirt, edgy professors, the songs of Frozen 2, the agency of God, the Gospel in the West Wing, fleshiness, and rejected for election. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Feeling Your Feelings

Thirst Trap

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11, John 4.5-42). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including scriptural introductions, Christian Twitter, Old Testament preaching, the wilderness of Sin, the “back in Egypt” committee, MewithoutYou, the best parts of the communion liturgy, faith vs. faithfulness, the living water on the cross, and secret snacks. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thirst Trap

https://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/lent-3a

The Grammar of Faith

Genesis 12.1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy. 

Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.

It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.

These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house. 

They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world. 

They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.

But what about the other Christians? 

What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?

To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.

Which, of course, is absurd. 

But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.

We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble. 

And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.

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Every verse in the Bible is important.

That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.

Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…

That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.

Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.

The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.

Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).

How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.

And it comes down to grammar. 

Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize

God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.

The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.

But we don’t like this. 

Not one bit. 

So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.

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I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night. 

She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.

I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.

It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.

We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.

And that is exhausting.

For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him. 

But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren. 

That’s it.

And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.

God chooses nobodies to bless the world.

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I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.

Or someone like you. 

And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.

God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.

If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.

We can’t even keep our promises.

But God does. 

Always.

That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.

Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.

But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.

It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.

He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.

He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.

That only led to more of the same in his life.

Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.

An invitation that felt like an invasion. 

“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”

There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary. 

He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this: 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.

That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own. 

Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.

Knocking The World To Pieces

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 12.1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4.1-5, 13-17, John 3.1-17). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the H-word, the importance of space, blessing to bless, mountain ministry, the law gospel distinction, Easter moments, Nicodemus as a middle schooler, being born-again, the challenge of John 3.16, and God as Mother. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Knocking The World To Pieces

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The Condition Of Our Condition

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that it in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 

This is where it all really starts, here back at the beginning. Sure, we’ve got the creation of the whole cosmos in the first seven days in Genesis 1, but this is where the story gets good.

It gets juicy.

The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the greatest of stories, up until the advent of Jesus Christ. What we discover and find here in the garden is inexhaustible, it can never be fully mined, and it cannot be explained away. So much, if not all, of who we are is founded upon what happens to these two with their mid-afternoon fruit snack. 

Today we re-enter the strange new world of the Bible and learn how the created order became utterly disordered.

The garden is called paradise and in these few verses paradise is lost. Of course, when we hear the word “paradise” we conjure up in our minds all sorts of images and ideas that don’t really have much to do with Eden. It’s not all crystal clear beaches and palm trees and drinks with ice that never fully melt away. It is paradise simply because it was a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound too much like paradise to us.

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We can’t even fathom how communal the communion is because it just sounds wrong. And if it sounds wrong it does so because we don’t like the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God. 

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors and in our internet search histories and in our knee-jerk reactions. We know how quick we are to judge and how untrusting we can be, and frankly we’d like to keep God out of all that, thank you very much.

Whatever paradise might have been for Adam and Eve, whatever the community called communion looked like, it definitely wasn’t like the world today.

Nations reeling from the threats of the Corona-virus and what it means for the so-called global community.

Children relying on free lunches at schools during the weeks because they don’t have any food to eat at home over the weekend.

Individuals seeking solace and comfort in the digital community because meeting people in the real world has become too difficult or too frightening.

But here we find our first parents in the paradise of God and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You are never in need of anything at all! There’s just one teeny tiny restriction. Think of the generosity of God here before the fall. God has opened up the entirely of everything for them with one little exception, and it’s not enough.

Imagine it like this: You’re a child, and you’re spending the afternoon at your grandmother’s house. The weather is perfect outside and she’s got this incredible playground for you to enjoy, there’s a pitcher of cold lemonade waiting for you on the porch and you can do anything you want! Except, your grandmother tell you, you can’t leave the yard.

Fair enough right?

Until the next door neighbor comes to the slats in the fence and calls out your name. “Hey look, I’ve got a few toys over here on my side, why don’t you come over here and play with me?”

There’s one rule – don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Don’t leave the yard.

Enter the snake, the next door neighbor. 

Did God really tell you not to eat from that one tree?

Did your grandmother really tell you not to come and play over here?

God wants you to be able to eat – just take a bite.

Your grandmother wants you to enjoy yourself, come and join me.

The seeds of doubt are planted.

You can’t help herself, and before you know it you’re playing in the sandbox on the other side of the fence, the fruit is dripping out of the corners of your mouth.

And Adam, your best friend, he doesn’t even put up a fight and just jumps right in with the fun.

And your eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect of our first parents’ choice was instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There’s no going back to what life was like before. They’ve had a taste of the other side of the fence.

What do they fell with all of this new knowledge? Are they puffed up and feeling invincible? Are they ready to take over the world?

No.

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They are afraid, they are ashamed, they are embarrassed. They see themselves as they had never seen themselves before, and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion some fig leaves together to make clothes, and they go hide in the bushes.

This is the root of all sin. It was then and still is now. We want to be God. We want to determine out own limits. We want to be in control of ourselves and others. 

And whenever we catch a glimpse of our true selves in the mirror, when we recognize all that we want and can not and should not have, then we hide ourselves away in shame.

And that’s the end of the story. Or, at least, that’s where the scripture reading stops for today. But, of course, that’s not the end – it’s only the beginning. Everything is uphill from here on out – uphill because it never gets easier.

But perhaps never is too strong of word.

But lets not skip to the end too quickly.

In the garden they make their choice, they begin to see, and they decide the best course of action is to hide, from each other, from themselves, and from God.

Prior to their decision this fear and shame was inconceivable, but now they find themselves in the bushes.

And this, for better and much worse, is exactly who we are. We are stuck in the bushes for good, hiding in our own self-knowledge, hoping that God won’t find us and see us as we know ourselves to be.

This is truly where everything went wrong. 

It is the division between all that is good, namely God, and all that is bad, namely us. 

We are, whether we like to admit it or not, rebellious, disobedient, idolatrous, and selfish.

And it is precisely at this moment in the story, as we see Adam and Eve hiding, that we often let the story run off in the wrong direction. For, I hope you have noticed so far, that almost everything I have said in this sermon has been entirely about us – our choices, our mistakes, our futility. 

It hasn’t really been about God.

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This text, usually for the worse, has been used as a call to arms for those who would call themselves Christians in one of two ways. 

One, we are told about how bad we are and how badly we need to feel about how bad we are. We leave church wallowing in self-pity and feeling even more exhausted than we did on the way in for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

Or, Two, we’re told all about how people outside the walls of the church are bad and how it is our job to go out there and fix them in all of their badness by bringing them in here so they too can start feeling bad about how bad they are.

And, sure, sometimes we do need to feel bad about our badness. Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Of course not. 

But, that’s not the whole story. 

For as much as we might want to believe that its all up to us, or that the church exists to help broken people fix themselves, or that we have to go searching for God, or whatever else – that’s not the story of the Bible.

The story of the Bible is that God is the one who comes to be and dwell and find his lost, and broken, and even dead creation.

Notice, this is the first thing God does after the fateful choice of Adam and Eve. God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky or send in a billowing tornado out of anger. No, God goes into the garden, and like a loving parent (or grandparent), kindly intones, “Adam, where are you?”

Adam, Even, and all the rest of us are lost. And for some strange reason, we keep willing ourselves to believe that we are the ones who have to find ourselves. We keep trying to get back to Eden as if we are capable of doing so.

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things all in the attempts at making this life more like whatever we think paradise should be. 

We got rid of slavery only to instead have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We tried to protect the freedom of the individual and instead we got greater wealth inequality than just about any other place on the planet.

We tried to produce advancements in medicine, and I just read that American life spans have shorten for the first time in decades due to the rise in the opioid epidemic.

Think about that for a moment – scores of people in this country would rather commit slow suicide than have to keep living with people like us. 

Whenever we read this story from the beginning we forget that it is exactly that, a beginning. The rest of the Bible will be about how God refuses to abandon us even after we fail to listen again and again and again. God does not give up on his children even though they keep hopping the fence to go play with the forbidden toys. God keeps waiting on the porch with the lemonade.

And for a lot of scripture, that’s kind of the whole story. God on one side of the fence, and we his creatures hanging out on the other side. At times, God will toss over a little bit of manna, or a little bit of wisdom, to help make sense out of the chaos of our own making. 

But then Jesus, God in the flesh, breaks down the whole fence, brings a new creation into existence. God, in Christ, rectifies the wrongs of Eden and opens up a new paradise for us, one even greater than what we had in that first garden. 

And we, believe it or not, get a taste of the goodness of that promised garden right here and right now. This thing we call communion is both a foretaste of what is to come, and is also a call back to what we once had in the garden. This is what God offers us, even though we broke and break the rules, even though we chose to leave the paradise God gave to us. 

For we, despite our attempts at self-righteousness and best intentions, are the kind of people who, one Friday afternoon when the sky went dark, as church and state were finally working together, democracy in action, happened to torture the Son of God to death on a cross. 

And yet, with some of his final breaths he pronounces not damnation but instead invitation. The Son of man calls us by name, with open arms on the cross, and destroys the fence of our own making forever and ever. Amen.

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God – Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51.1-3

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 

“I know all about that.”

I looked up from my book toward in the man sitting next to me. He had bandages all over his face and he was pointing at the cover of my book.

When God Is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor.

I was trying to mind my own business at the dermatologist, just preparing for a routine exam of my pale and mole-y body, I didn’t even wear a clergy collar because I just wanted to be like everybody else, but I didn’t think about the book I was reading.

So I looked into the eyes of the man and I said, “What do you mean?”

“I know all about God being silent.”

And, knowing that listening is often better than speaking, I just kept looking into his eyes and waited for him to continue.

And then he did.

I learned about the man. About his life, about his family, about his struggles, about his skin cancer that just keeps coming back. About how many times he’s pleaded with God to just give him a sign, to just say anything at all. He kept talking and talking until they called his name and he left me sitting there in the waiting room, waiting for my own appointment, in silence.

I hear this a lot, considering what I do for a living. I hear about God’s silence, about the absence of God from one’s life. I hear about suffering and loneliness and fear and, in particular, the silence of death. People want to know what their loved ones long dead are now doing. They want reassurance that, even though they hear nothing, God is somewhere still speaking.

In other words, they want to hear about life without having to think about death.

And they, whoever they are, are us.

We all do it. 

Consciously and unconsciously.

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Whether we’re lying awake at night frantically willing ourselves not to think about the end, or we’re watching yet another commercial desperately attempting to convince us that we can make it out of this life alive.

I was sitting with a family one time preparing a funeral and the daughter of the woman now dead said, “We really want this to be a celebration of life.”

“Sure,” I muttered, thinking we could move on to selecting hymns or particular scriptures, but she continued.

“In fact, we would prefer it if you didn’t mention how she died, or even that she’s really dead at all. Come to think of it, we’d really like it if you could talk about her as if she were still alive with us right now.”

There is a time to live and there is a time to die, as the scripture goes. And we’d prefer to have to the first bit without the latter.

I wonder if the reason we feel so afraid of death, the reason we pretend the dead aren’t dead, is because the silence of death is so overwhelming. We go from having someone with whom we can converse and then suddenly that conversation is cut off forever. We don’t know what to do with something we can’t control, and we therefore fear it with every fiber of our being.

We fear death.

We used to fear God.

I’ve been preaching and gathering together with Christians on Ash Wednesday for the better part of a decade, and I find it to be one of the most incredible and strange things we do. Ash Wednesday, though hyper focused on our identity as sinners in the hands of God, is a time when we are actually encouraged to do some navel gazing.

Every other day of the church year feels different. As the oft quoted line goes, “The church is the only institution in the world that exists for the sake of outsiders.” That’s probably true, but today is different. Today, it really is about us.

It’s about how we know we’re going to die, and how God is going to make something out of the nothing of our deaths, and how God will still speak even in the silence of our ends.

But that’s not an easy thing to handle, and its why fewer and fewer people attend services like this one, whether its at 7 in the morning or 7 in the evening. We don’t want to look at sin and death any more than we have to, but we have to do it. Otherwise we run the risk of perpetual self-deception, in which our ears become so stopped up that we can’t hear the voice of the Lord that still speaks in spite of us.

Like the psalmist, today we come before the throne of the Lord and confess that God has a case against us and we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Lord. 

As Christians this rests at the heart of who we are and whose we are – we cannot ignore the condition of our condition, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we are better than anyone else, we are sinners resting in the hands of a loving God.

That we can call God a loving God is what makes all the difference. For, it is in the same moment that we can truly acknowledge our brokenness that we also begin to see God as the One who offers mercy to us even though we don’t deserve it.

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While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Not before we were sinners, or after we were sinners, but in the midst of our sin. 

Even the psalmist gets it: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

That is the prayer of someone who knows that there is hope in spite of feeling hopeless, who knows that God’s compassion far exceeds our own, and who knows that grace is always greater than our sin. Always.

I waited my turn, all the while thinking of the man and what he said. I pondered over what I would’ve said had his name not been called, and I kept mulling over the different scriptures that speak about God’s silence in the Bible. I even pulled out my phone to look up a passage about Elijah and the still small voice, when I realized that the man was finished and was walking back into the waiting room. But instead of walking toward the door and leaving us all behind, he walked back over to me, sat down and said, “Thanks for listening earlier. I feel a lot better.” Then he shook my hand and left.

His gratitude for my silent listening was a reminder for me that whenever God might feel silent, perhaps God’s silence is due to God’s listening. That, rather than interrupting and knocking us down a peg or two (something we all deserve) God is content to listen to whatever we might hurl at God. God can handle our anger and our fear and our frustration and even our sin because God is holy.

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In a few moments we are going to pray together. As we pray and reflect on the overwhelming love of God we are going to confess our lack of love. While we remember Jesus’ willingness to come and take away our sins, we are going to confess those sins for which Jesus came. As we acknowledge the unconditional grace of God, we are going to confess the conditions we place on one another all the time. 

And while we do all of that, lifting up contradictory elements of who we are and who God is, it will become our worship. God has done a remarkable thing for us. We don’t need to lie to ourselves or to others, we don’t have to compete with unattainable moral expectations, we don’t have to pretend we are something that we are not.

We are Christians, we can be who we are and can be seen as the sinners we are, because God will not remain silent.

God speaks his Son into the world who comes to be the judged Judge in our place. He takes each and every one of our sins, nails them to the cross, and refuses to evaluate us by our mistakes. God reminds us today, and every day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. 

But God is in the business of raising the dead, which means that dust isn’t the end. Prayer.

Get Your Ash In Church (And Leave It There)

Devotional:

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

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Today is Ash Wednesday.

Christians across the globe are gathering together to hear words that the church has heard for centuries: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those are the words I intoned this morning as I marked the gathered body with ashes, and they will be the words I will use tonight. And, God willing, they will be the words I use every Ash Wednesday until the end.

But what happens after the church leaves the church with those ashen crosses on their foreheads is a strange and bewildering thing.

I, for one, left church this morning and then drove my son to his Preschool. Like most mornings we patiently waited outside the door of his classroom, only this time 3 of his classmates approached me and, independently of one another, made comments about the smudge on my forehead while their parents tried to pull them away.

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On other Ash Wednesdays I have been approached in grocery stores and on street corners by inquisitive people as to what in the world happened to my head.

But there’s a good case to be made that before we leave the church with our ashen crosses, we should wash them off.

Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Of course we can leave the ashes on our heads until they naturally fade away, but if we keep them just so we can be seen by others for our faithfulness, then we have failed to take the words of Jesus seriously.

My fried Teer Hardy puts it this way, “Wash your ash today. Let us not allow the world see our fasting as an attempt for pious righteousness but rather let our fasting be a witness to the judgement that was due to us but because of Christ’s sacrificial life we receive the justification we do not deserve.”

Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is a unique time in the life of the church when, rather than focusing outwardly, we are encouraged to look inward, to consider the condition of our condition, and to recognize our absolute dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ.

So get your ash in church, and leave it there.

The rest is up to Jesus.