Passionate Palms

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Palm Sunday [C] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Luke 19.28-40). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including intergenerational trauma, the whole story, Holy Week, difficult hymns, The Wesley Bros comic, responsibility, the elected reject, singing stones, choices (or the lack thereof), and the not normed norm. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Passionate Palms

Who In The World Is Jesus?

Philippians 3.10

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. 

Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.

Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.

I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.

I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”

I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.

Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.

But what about those outside the church?

Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”

Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained  from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.

But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God. 

Narding Out

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including record breakers, timelessness, keeping Easter in Lent, Makoto Fujimura, laughing in church, terrible testimonies, tremendous transformation, clarity (or the lack thereof), authorial soliloquies, and John Daker. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Narding Out

A Hermeneutic Of Inversion

Luke 13.31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent, the season in which we are called to lament and repent. In the scriptures we continue to confront the condition of our condition and the tones of abject disappointment from the Lord as the cross grows clearer on the horizon.

Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to return home.

Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time to spare for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do.

Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one we adorn our sanctuary with.

As Jesus’ ministry progresses, his lamentations increase just as the obstacles standing in his way increase.

For some reason the political and religious establishments are threatened by the poor and wandering rabbi with his messages of the Kingdom of God. They are threatened because talk of the meek inheriting the earth calls into question all of the power and prestige they have acquired.

Which makes the beginning of this scripture all the more strange. It is rather peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.

“Get out of here Jesus! Herod wants to kill you!”

And Jesus brushes the threat aside, “You tell that dirty rotten scoundrel that I’ve got work to do and places to be.”

During Lent the strange new world of the Bible keeps pointing to the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end.

And Jesus loves Jerusalem.

But it is a strange love.

Jesus describes his own love for the city as a mother hen who endeavors to wrap her wings around her helpless chicks.

And yet, Jerusalem has responded to God’s love and mercy with rebellion, with selfish ambition, with violence.

Jesus loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.

And though it pains us to admit, the same is true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our sin-sick souls, it such that it leads to his end. 

There are some texts in the holy scriptures that seem to be nothing but trouble. Jesus, here, complains about the wandering hearts of Jerusalem, and how they fail to see the truth right in front of their faces. “See your house is left to you,” sounds like a threat from the Lord.

And yet, biblically speaking, whenever trouble is present, grace isn’t far away.

There is a divine inversion between what is good and bad, in and out, elect and reject.

Cain kills Abel and though God sets Cain to wander the earth for the rest of his days, he is also marked so that no one will bring the same fate that he brought to his brother.

Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of the inheritance and is confronted with an angel of the Lord who knocks his hip out of joint for the rest of the days shortly before he reconciles with his brother.

The favor and blessing of the Lord moves from Saul to David, and yet David commands the people of Israel to weep upon the death of their former king.

Whenever we encounter someone or a group who appears to be rejected by God, there is also some sense of election. 

Grace, what we talk about all the time, isn’t so amazing unless there’s a reason for it. Put another way – the law of God is given in order that grace might be sought, and the grace of God is given in order that the law might be fulfilled.

We need rejection and election.

We need law and gospel.

Because that’s what life is like. 

Karl Barth put it this way: “There is no light which does not also know darkness, no joy which does not have within it sorrow; but the converse is also true; no fear, no rage, which does not have, far or near, peace at its side. No laughter without tears, no weeping without laughter!”

John Wesley once said that every law contains a hidden promise.

Grace abounds.

In theological speak we might call it a hermeneutic of inversion – an understanding of things being flipped upside down.

In our passage, Herod wants to kill Jesus. And yet, at the same time, Jesus wants to save Herod.

Jerusalem will bring about Jesus’ death. And yet, at the same time, Jesus’ death will bring about Jerusalem’s salvation.

There is always more to the story than the story itself.

As I said last week, try as we might to move through the motions of Lent, at some point or another we will raise the question that Christians have been asking since the beginning: Who in the world is this Jesus we worship?

I mean, why is Jesus so upset about Jerusalem? Why does he lament what they have done and what they will do? In another part of scripture Jesus will command the disciples to brush the dust off their feet when they encounter a town that does not receive them. Why then does Jesus desire to gather the wayward city under the loving care of a mother hen’s wings?

Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But Matthew does.

And it’s rather revealing.

I did a funeral once for a man whose daughter had not one kind thing to say about her Dad. He was awful to her, he did truly despicable things. It was a miracle she even showed up for the service. And after we put him in the ground, she couldn’t stop crying. And when I asked her why she was crying all she could say was, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

What good is it to lament the bad?

The target is on Jesus’ back, Herod wants him dead. And Jesus brushes away the threat of the Pharisees like it’s nothing.

And then he laments. Not over his life shortly coming to an end. But over Jerusalem, the killer of prophets.

He laments, he grieves, he weeps.

Lent, for us, is the season that provides a chance to lament. Whereas the world always wants to drag us from one thing to the next, Lent compels us to pause. It is a time to sit and grieve and acknowledge that all is not right with the world.

Nor with us.

We’ve behaved badly.

We have done things we ought not to have done.

We have left far too many things undone.

And yet, when it comes to lament, we are far more inclined to lament what happened to and with other people and other places.

It’s not hard for us to imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Jerusalem, because we can just as easily picture him weeping over Russia.

O Russia, O Russia. Look at what you’re doing to the people of Ukraine! You’re dropping bombs on maternity wards, displacing children from their parents, you’re destroying your own souls! O how I have longed to hold you within my lovingly embrace! Look at what you’ve become!

And yet, the inconvenient truth of the Gospel is that for as much as Jesus weeps over the state of other places and other people, Jesus also laments over us.

I wonder, how Jesus would react to us today? What would happen if Jesus looked down upon us from the top of Mill Mountain. Would Jesus cry?

Would he lament?

This is what prophets do: they call into question the powers and principalities regarding all their power and prestige. Prophets point right smack dab at our hearts and our desires and our sins and our shortcomings, they hold up a mirror to who we are, and they beg us to see the truth.

No wonder prophets live such short lives – no one likes being told the truth.

Will Willimon tells a story about how, when he was younger and living in Greenville, South Carolina, the whole place was abuzz with the news that Billy Graham was coming to town. There was going to be a revival. All the churches made plans for the special occasion and even the most ardently unChristian folks were still hoping to hear a word from the evangelist.

And, at Will’s church, they had a meeting about whether or not their church would participate in the revival. The pastor stood before the gathered body and made an impassioned plea – Graham is setting souls on fire, he is winning people for Christ, what a remarkable opportunity for our town, for our church.

And then someone else chimed in, “I’m not so sure pastor. Billy Graham seems charismatic and all, but did you hear that he lets black folk and white folk sit in the same section during his revivals? I don’t think we should be involved with someone who supports integration.”

And that’s all it took. The board voted right then and there to protect the church from Billy Graham’s sinful racial mixing.

After the meeting, Will says that he walked through the church to leave, but forgot something in the social hall so as he turned around in a hallway he heard the sound of sobbing. He crept down the hall. And there was the pastor’s door left slightly ajar. Will peeked inside and he saw his pastor, kneeling on the floor, holding his head in his hands, weeping.

There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, the sign and marker of our delivery from Sin and Death. But, in the cross, we discover our reckless rebellion from the one who came to live, die, and live again, for us.

Jesus laments the city of Jerusalem. He weeps with the knowledge of his desire to gather the people in love and their constant refusal. And he declares the house is left to them.

To us. 

When the house is left to us we like to decide who is in and who is out. We like to formulate our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is rejected and who is elected.

And so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God.

Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.

God in Christ desperately desires to gather us in, the lost and forsaken, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we refuse. 

So Jesus leaves the house to us.

But not forever.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “ you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Those are the words sung by the crowds while waving their palm branches as Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. 

Those are the same words that we, ourselves, will be singing in a few weeks.

You see, the Good News is that Jesus, in fact, does not abandon us to our own devices nor does Jesus leave us to our own houses. Instead, he arrives in the strangest of ways, banging on the doors of our own creation and says, through death and resurrection, this is my Father’s house.

Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is like us and so unlike us. He weeps and laments and loves precisely in our undeserving. He desires to gather us even when we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing full and well that, when push comes to shoves, our Hosannas will turn to Crucify in the blink of an eye. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we put him there.

Jesus says to us, even today, look at who you are, and look at what you’re doing! Jesus still laments and cries, even for us. 

Keeping up with the disruptive and demanding movements of a Holy and righteous God, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s enough to make you cry. Amen.

Less Is More

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

The Devil Is In The Details

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices. 

It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.

The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.

We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”

It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.

But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.

And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.

Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.

Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”

And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”

“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”

And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”

“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”

And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”

And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.

That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.

As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.

And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness. 

But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.

Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.

Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.

But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.

Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations. 

This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.

Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles

And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!

Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”

But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.

Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.

Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.

For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.

And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.

And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?

The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.

What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.

But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.

We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.

We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.

We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.

We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.

In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.

In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.

And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.

We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.

But it never does.

If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.

Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.

The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.

The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.

Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.

But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.

Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”

And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.

Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.

Beauty In Brokenness

Psalm 51.1-17

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. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”

There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.

But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.

Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly. 

Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.

We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.

The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.

And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.

That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.

They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.

And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.

There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.

A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness. 

On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.

Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.

In church speak we call it redemption.

Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.

It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.

But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.

Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred. 

The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.

The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.

The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.

That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.

Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty: 

We are dust and to dust we shall return.

We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.

We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.

Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.

I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?

I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?

I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?

You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen. 

Words About The Word

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the First Sunday of Lent [C] (Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13, Luke 4.1-13). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Lenten observances, first fruits, Karl Barth on time, doom and gloom, institutional identities, rocking climbing, angelology, imaging salvation, preaching anxieties, Twitter, and temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Words About The Word

A Chance To Feel Self-Righteous (with Fleming Rutledge)

Five years ago the Crackers & Grape Juice team had an idea for a new lectionary podcast and we have published an episode every Monday since. Our first guest was Fleming Rutledge and she knocked our socks off (as usual). We are reposting that first episode because Fleming’s thoughts and comments are just as relevant today as they were five years ago. In it she talks about what she deems the “current preaching crisis,” the desire to appear prophetic, and the call to stand under the judgment of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Chance To Feel Self-Righteous

The Strange Sunday

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death. 

Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.

And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.

The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.

“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)

Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:

I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song. 

Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.

Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?