Church People Are Gonna Church People

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including College Football message boards, hot winds, discomfort for the Lord, pretending all is well, colloquial liturgy, praying for others, the sneakiness of works righteousness, and the impracticality of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Church People Are Gonna Church People

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A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads. 

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church. 

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This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church. 

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

We Have No King But Jesus

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Political signs and bumper stickers are a strange practice. I understand the fervor that’s behind people wanting to display their political hopes and affiliations, I can even appreciate the very rare but very good pun made on such signs, and in a time such as ours I get the desire to draw clear lines in the sand.

But, what are we really trying to communicate when we display those particular names, or those particular political mascots?

I mean, how many people have been persuaded to vote for someone else because of a bumper stickers or a lawn sign? Is that why we do it?

Or are we purposely trying to anger the people stuck behind us in traffic or that wayward neighbor from the other side of the aisle?

It boggles the mind that for being one of our so-called private subjects, we certainly love to air out all of our political laundry.

And what’s funnier is how long we keep those signs/stickers long after the race is over.

Just drive anywhere around the church and you’ll likely see a Make America Great Again sticker, or a wind battered “I’m With Her” sign. And if you’re looking for it, you can find some other great reminders down memory lane.

In the last week I saw three W stickers, two for Clinton/Gore, and believe it or not, I saw a Nixon/Agnew sticker on the back of a pickup truck that no longer had any business being on the road.

It’s one thing to proudly display whether we lean red or blue today, but what does it say if we are living in the far political past? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had conversations when someone said something like, “I wish ______ was still president.” And then he or she will lay out all of the reasons it would be better for us as a country, never mind the fact that Ford, Nixon, Regan, and JFK are all dead.

But the funniest and strangest political sticker of them all is one that I see far too often these days: Jesus for President.

Have you seen one? It has all the trappings of a normal political announcement: it is usually filled with the patriotic red, white, or blue, and with a slightly skewed angle you’ll see the words “Jesus for President” or “Jesus Christ 2020.” 

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Most of them are so well done that you have to look twice before you realize they’re talking about the baby who arrives in the manger and not some political hopeful who believes he can fix everything with our country.

Friends, let me tell you something, we don’t want Jesus to be our president. 

No. No. No.

That would be a terrible idea.

Hey everyone, we’ve got to raise everyones taxes, and by everyone I mean EVERYONE, because we’ve got too many people who are hungry, cold, and suffering in the hospital.

My fellow Americans, I am proud to announce our new national initiative: “Turning Cheeks.” Yep, that’s right, from now on if someone hits you, it’s illegal to do anything in retribution except for offering the other cheek as well.

Tonight, I speak to you from the oval office with great news, every weapon in the country has been smelted or melted into plowshares so that we can all work toward a more agrarian economy. I once said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and I meant it. But today, those who live by the plow will thrive by the plow!

Jesus would be a terrible president.

Can you imagine? He’d always disappear in the middle of something important just so that he could pray with his heavenly father in private. He’d ditch the secret service to go hang out with the homeless around the Whitehouse. And he’d probably wear a dirty robe when he gave speeches from the Rose Garden.

Jesus would be a terrible president.

But he makes a pretty good King…

Today, in churches all across the globe, we triumphantly announce that Jesus Christ is King. We boldly proclaim that our allegiance it to Christ and to Christ alone. And we remember that we, as Christians, humbly bow to no one but Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is the last Sunday in the liturgical year and we dedicate it to reminding ourselves about the lordship of Jesus. It’s not the time for a quaint little parable, or an Old Testament narrative. No, today we put it all on the line: We are either for Jesus, or we’re not. 

And its kind of funny, when you think about it… Taking one day out of the year to talk about Jesus as the King. We usually talk about Jesus in a great number of other ways. We think about Jesus as a teacher, or a healer, or a sage, or a spiritual leader. 

But a king? 

And, seeing as it’s the last day of the year for us, we do well to take stock over where we’ve been, and the one whom we have gathered to worship over the last 12 months.

Jesus was poor. He had no standing in the world. But he preached about the kingdom of God, and it attracted a lot of attention. 

It can be very difficult for people like you and I to grasp the kind of common that followed our King, because we don’t really live at all like the people did during the time of Jesus. But, for centuries, for generations, the Jews experienced nothing but trials and tribulations. They were exiled, defeated, and eventually returned to disasters. They went through various rebellions and foreign occupations, all while waiting for the promised King from the line of David. 

And then came Jesus. He shook things up. He healed people and preached about an entirely new reality. And it made people mad.

So the religious elite, and the secular authorities, took a poor Jew and they nailed him to a cross. He suffered and died in the most degrading and humiliating way possible. And pretty soon after, his former followers, people called disciples, started our from Jerusalem and spread word all over the Mediterranean that this crucified man was resurrected from the dead and was the Lord and King of the universe.

It’s hard to imagine Jesus as our president, but sometimes its even harder to imagine him being resurrected from beyond the grave. 

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But that’s the whole thing right there: Jesus was raised from the dead. That’s what makes him our king. Not because he has the right political strategy, not because he knows who to tax and who to forgive, but simply because he was raised from the dead.

Christ the King Sunday is strange and political and eternal. It pokes and prods at our expectations about what it means to be a faithful people and it leaves many of us, if not most of us, scratching our heads.

It confuses our sensibilities about life, death, and everything in between.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate is confused as well. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The people have delivered this poor Jew into his hands and he doesn’t know what to do. Jesus hasn’t really committed a crime, certainly nothing that warrants death, yet that’s what the people want. 

What’s a Pilate to do?

He asks questions – he wants to make sense of this senseless moment. He stands before the one man who will literally change everything. In him he encounters something that is strange and political and eternal. Jesus’ answers poke and prod at his expectations of what it means to hold power and he leaves scratching his head.

“What is truth?”

Oh what a question! It doesn’t get much better than this. For a moment, it’s like we’ve jumped into the strange new world of the Bible and we finally get a chance to ask a question! 

Jesus, what is truth? 

Pilate has the Truth standing right in front of him and he doesn’t recognize it. Perhaps he is kept from seeing the height and depth and length and breadth of God’s love in Jesus Christ on that side of the crucifixion. 

Here’s the truth, the truth that Pilate couldn’t see, but the truth made possible to people like you and me: Jesus Christ is our King because he, and he alone, has been victorious over death.

It’s that simple.

It’s that confusing.

On the cross he drew into himself all of the brokenness and all of the pain and all of the sorrow of the world, and in his resurrection he conquered it, he destroyed it, he obliterated it.

He came into this world as God in the flesh and from his resurrected dominion he rules as the living Lord of life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus is the truth!

On this Christ the King Sunday, as we re-encounter the truth, there is a question that hangs in the air, a question similar to Pontius Pilate’s: Who do we want to be the ruler of our lives? 

The answer, for many of us, is of course: We want to rule our lives. We want to be the masters of our fates, we want to be the captain of our souls. That’s the American way!

Most of us here this morning have come of age in a world and a culture in which the individual reigns supreme. We like to elevate self-made people. And we often want to put them in places of power.

But if we want to be in charge, why aren’t things going the way we hoped? Why do we bicker with the people closest to us? Why aren’t our children doing what they’re supposed to do?

Our heightened individualistic culture is not one that is familiar to our King. 

Being left to our own devices leaves us isolated, and afraid, and full or questions. 

There is no such thing as being alone in the kingdom of God: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. 

We are not alone, nor are we meant to be alone. We belong to something and someone greater than ourselves. We belong to the Truth who is, and was, and is to come. 

Jesus is our King, not because he makes our lives easier, not because he has better solutions for all of our political problems, and not because he will protect us from the evils of this world. He is simply our King because he is the truth: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might not perish but have eternal life.

The incarnation and the defeat of death are the only qualifications necessary for Jesus to become the Lord of our lives. 

There’s a reason that Jesus’ kingdom, to put it in his words, is not of this world. Because this world isn’t the end, it does not determine everything that happens to us, it does not hold all the power. Jesus died and rose again to usher in a new world not defined by those with power, but by the one who points toward himself and therefore at the truth.

And so, like Pontius Pilate we stand before the one born in a manger, the one who wandered Galilee, the one who died in a tree for you and me, and we get to ask the question, “What is truth?”

And what is Jesus’ answer? “I am.”

Amen. 

A Liturgy For Thanksgiving

I used to love Thanksgiving: the food, the family, and the fellowship. But now I kind of dread it.

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables. Now we wear our red hats or bicker about the midterms, we jockey seats to surround ourselves with those of the same persuasion, and we find ourselves replenishing our wine with every passing political anecdote.

Therefore I have created a brief thanksgiving liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may publicly read it aloud, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what was once one of my favorite holidays…

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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 who 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. 

Read Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He taketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Meditation:

The Bible is one long and flowing narrative about the goodness of creation, the brokenness that often comes through sin, and God’s work to restore all of creation to its wholeness. The 23rd Psalm reminds us that we will inevitably walk through dark valleys, but we will do so with the Lord by our side. It is therefore at our Thanksgiving tables that we discover the strange truth of what it means to sit at a table prepared in the presence of our enemies; our enemies might not be our families and friends, but our greatest enemy might actually be ourselves. And so, let us take a moment to reflect on our own brokenness and the grace that God has offered, such that we can then go around the table and truly express something for which we are particularly grateful for this year. Or, to put it another way, how have we experienced our cups running over this year?

Prayer:

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as this one around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that 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. 

I Pledge Allegiance To Jesus Christ

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jonathan Page about the readings for the Christ the King Sunday (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Jonathan serves as the pastor of Herndon UMC in Herndon, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bidding farewell to Year B, the particularity of liturgical days, the Christian version of the 4th of July, the end of metaphors, generational evangelism, rebelling against the kingdom, flags in the sanctuary, and the power of lingering questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Pledge Allegiance To Jesus Christ

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The Fruit Of The Womb

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (Ruth 3.1-4, 4.13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44). Teer serves as an associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the cohosts for Crackers And Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent devotionals, Rated R scriptures, podophobia, neighborhood names, bringing God into the voting booth, the once-for-all-ness of the atonement, sacrificing Jesus one Sunday a month, and ignoring people in robes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Fruit of the Womb

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Teer Talking About Feet…

Mercy > Merit

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for All Saints Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including All Saints habits, the problem with stained glass language, really long communion tables, being mindful of the malleability of time, removing disgrace, holiness and hand sanitizer, open doors, funeral texts, and the universality of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy > Merit

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