Mortal

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. 

Idolatry In Coronatide

Psalm 130.5

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.

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A lot of churches are going to close because of the Coronavirus. 2 weeks of no in-person worship, let alone 6 weeks, is a death sentence for a great number of churches that are living, economically, Sunday to Sunday.

And the closure of churches won’t even come close to the destruction of thousands of businesses across the country, as well as the rampant rise of unemployment that is expected in the new few weeks. 

The fears of what the virus is doing to the American economy have garnered attention from the biggest talking heads on the news, to conversations over backyard fences between neighbors holding fast to social distancing. And yet, the total and all encompassing nature of the economy as the epitome of our attention is nothing new. We are obsessed with money and how money defines who we are.

Jesus calls that kind of obsession idolatry.

That’s not to say our fears are unwarranted. There will be a whole lot of people who will struggle sooner rather than later in terms of figuring out how to get food on the table, or even to keep the homes in which their tables are situated. But the fears about the economic impacts have begun to outweigh fears about our public health.

I have read so many articles and posts from individuals and agencies lambasting different groups for shutting down in the wake of the virus. Christians have berated their pastors for canceling church services, parents have harangued School Boards for shutting down schools, and now citizens are demonizing political leaders for executive orders temporary closing businesses until it becomes safe to gather together once again.

And, I get it. I understand the fear and the anxiety and even the anger. The church I serve will struggle mightily in the next few weeks to pay our pills, fund ministries, and maintain our payroll. Sadly, so much of who we are and what we do (or can do) is based on what we receive through the offering plate Sunday after Sunday. 

And when you’re no longer allowed to meet on Sunday, those numbers start dropping rapidly.

However, the short term economic concerns should not compare at all to the long term mortality rates. 

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Which is all to say, we care more about money than anything else.

Case in point: When I meet with couples to go through premarital counseling I ask a few standard questions to get the conversation rolling like, “What was your last fight about?” and “What’s a challenge you two had to overcome together?” and (eventually) “Are you two currently sexually active with one another?” Those are weird questions in any situation, but the couples I’ve met with are often able to share truthfully where they are and what it has meant for them as a couple. 

And yet, there’s another question I ask that is often met with blank stares: “How much money do each of you make?” It’s an important question to raise when considering marriage since the majority of divorces stem from economic disagreements. But couples on the cusp of marriage don’t want to talk about how much money they make. It has boggled my mind to hear talk of sexual histories, and screaming matches, but when the question of money comes up they don’t want to share anything.

Or another example: There’s a popular Youtube Channel called CUT in which they ask 100 random individuals the same question. And, more often than not, the questions are not the type of thing people willfully discuss. Some of the questions have included, “Have you ever tried drugs?” “How you ever cheated on a romantic partner?” “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

One by one they look into the camera and they answer. It’s kind of shocking not only to discover what people have done but also the fact that they are willing to admit it.

And yet, there’s one particular video where the question is, “How much money do you make?” and the majority of the participants refused to answer the question!

And one more example: A few people on the news this week suggested that we, as a country, should be willing to let 1% of our country die if it means keeping the country from economic collapse (The 1% stems from some figures saying that only 1% of people who contract the Coronavirus die from it, though the percentage actually appears to be far higher). 1% might not sound like much, but that would mean letting over 3 million Americans die to preserve our economy. 

Or, let me put it a little differently: We have roughly 110-120 people in worship every Sunday at the church I serve. Do you think it would be right to kill someone in our church just so we could keep having church the following Sunday?

How we answer that question says a lot about who we are and what we believe. 

Interestingly, Jesus has a whole lot to say about money, though preachers types like myself often get uncomfortable bringing up what the Lord had to say. Perhaps the most striking example is Jesus reminding the disciples that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Money and the Lord at the same time. 

We have to make a choice.

Or, maybe another way to put it would be like this: If we are willing to let people die to save the economy for the rest of us, then the rest of us won’t have lives worth living.

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.

The Miry Bog

Devotional:

Psalm 40.1-2

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

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On Sunday I went a little off sermon and walked down from the altar and talked extemporaneously about our incessant desire to make it appear as if we all have it all together. I shared about how, as a pastor, I have the unique privilege of knowing about what’s going on behind the curtain for more than most and that all of us, no matter how good our lives look on the outside, are struggling with something on the inside. 

I wasn’t planning on saying any of it, but I could tell from the expressions on faces that it was hitting hard. As we continued on in worship, and eventually stood to share signs of Christ’s peace with one another, more than a few people were wiping tears away from their eyes as they were beginning to open up with their fellow disciples about what life has thrown at them.

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Contrary to what we might hear or even believe, the story of faith isn’t about how we’ve got it all figured out. In fact, the opposite is true: we are all struggling through and looking for relief from our burdens. Or, as the psalmist puts it, we are looking for God to pull us up from the miry bogs of our existence.

Francine Christophe is a French poet who survived the Holocaust. A few years ago she was interviewed for a documentary about what it means to be human and this is what she said:

“I was born on August 18th, 1933. 1933 was the year when Hitler took power… When I was 11 years old in the Bergen-Belsen camp, an amazing thing happened. Let me remind you, as the children of prisoners of war, we were privileged. We were permitted to bring something from France. A little bad, with two of three small items. One woman brought chocolate, another some sugar, a third a handful of rice. My mom had packed two little pieces of chocolate. She said to me, ‘We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate and you’ll feel better.’ 

“One of the women imprisoned with us was pregnant. You couldn’t tell, she was so skinny. But the day came and she went into labor. She went to the camp hospital with my mother, who was the barracks chief. Before they left, my mother said, ‘Remember that chocolate I was saving for you?’ ‘Yes Mama.’ ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Fine, Mama. I’ll be okay.’ ‘Well then, if its alright with you, I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady, our friend Helene. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.’ ‘Yes Mama. Go ahead.’

“Helene gave birth to the baby. A tiny, little, feeble thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never! She didn’t even wail. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the baby’s rags and she screamed. That was the day she was really born. She was taken back to France – a puny little thing for 6 months.

“A few years ago, my daughter asked me, ‘Mama, if you deportees had had psychologists or psychiatrists when you returned, maybe it would’ve been easier for you.’ I replied, ‘Undoubtedly, but we didn’t have them. No one thought of mental illness. But you gave me a good idea. We’ll have a lecture on that topic.’ I organized a lecture on the theme and invited people to come and participate.

“The lecture drew quite a crowd. Elderly survivors, historians, and many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists. It was quite interesting. Many ideas emerged. It was excellent. Then, a woman took the podium and said, ‘I live in Marseille, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.’ In other words, me. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me and said, ‘I am the baby.’”

I can’t imagine the fear of being pregnant while in a concentration camp. New birth and new life is supposed to be filled with such hope and promise, but to be pregnant in one of those camps was basically a death sentence. 

Francine Christophe’s story is a powerful reminder of the new life in the midst of chaos, hope within calamity. In it we are forced to reckon with how much we need each other, and how much we are needed by one another, and how God is helping us through the miry bog we call life.

Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

To Whom It May Concern

Romans 1.1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union. 

But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.

I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:

“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”

But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.

So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break. 

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.

But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong. 

To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.

Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.

We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved. 

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But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world. 

Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.

Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”

Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?

Paul didn’t have a choice.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.

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We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like! 

That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well. 

Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter. 

Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.

Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.

Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not. 

It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.

That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen. 

Liturgy of Thanksgiving

Devotional:

John 6.35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Weekly Devotional Image

The older I become the more complicated Thanksgiving feels.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of food, eavesdropping on grownup conversations, and running around in the cold until a responsible adult beckoned us back inside.

But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say that one thing that will set everyone off. 

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). Now we wear our red hats, or mention a recent debate sound bite, in order to make sure everyone at the table knows what side we are on.

Which is remarkably strange when we consider the fact that Jesus came to destroy the divisions that we so eagerly want to demonstrate around our tables.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.

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Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Liturgy of Thanksgiving to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what our tables are supposed to feel like…

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Meditation:

We cannot live by bread alone – so Jesus reminds the Devil and all of us during the temptations in the wilderness. But we do have to eat to live; it’s just that ordinary bread isn’t enough. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is bigger and more important than just the sharing of food. It is through our conversations and our prayers that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. The table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table on Sundays and when we come to it we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. This is the work of God, and we are all witnesses.

Prayer: 

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as ours around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.