I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Christ The King Sunday started in 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it as a day in the liturgical calendar. Mussolini had been in charge in Italy for three years, Hitler had been out of jail for a year, and the Great Depression had rippled effects across the globe. So the Catholic Church decided they needed a Sunday, every year, to remind the (Christian) world that we have our own king and its to him that we owe our allegiance.
Today, across mainline protestantism, Christ the King Sunday is usually overlooked in order to celebrate themes of Thanksgiving. Instead of reading about the lordship of Christ, we reflect on gathering at the tables and all of our blessings. And, to be clear, that’s all good and fine. However, Christ the King Sunday is a rare opportunity for churches to be unabashed in our convictions about power, allegiances, authority, and a host of other worthy aspects of discipleship.
It is the perfect time to be reminded who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.
The first time I traveled to Guatemala for a mission trip, we stopped briefly in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche Mayan culture. We were told to explore for a few hours before returning to the van and after I traveled down one too many streets without keeping track of my location, I realized I was lost.
I decided to try to find a high vantage point in order to get my bearings and I wandered around until I found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps leading to the sanctuary were covered with people resting, and I had to weave my way back and forth until I was at the top.
I should’ve turned around to look back over the town, but something (read: Holy Spirit) drew me inside the church.
The sanctuary was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground under my feet was soft like soil, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings on the wall were nearly impossible to decipher. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I crept closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar.
It was one of the least churchy churches I had ever experienced.
Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I stood before the Lord’s Table. And there, poised in front of me, was perhaps the most pristine sculpture of Christ I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. He stood with robes draped over his shoulders with an outstretched hand and a crown of thorns resting on his head: Christ the King.
What kind of king is Jesus?
In that Guatemalan church I was confronted with what it really means to confess Jesus as Lord. For, while I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard, Christ stood firmly before me as King of the cosmos. In that moment, I saw the paradox of the crucifixion – the King of kings hung on a cross to die.
The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God (in Christ) is the one who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, and binds of the injured. God strengthens the weak and destroys the strong. That is the God we worship, that is the King to whom we owe our allegiance.
And on Christ the King Sunday we confess the truly Good News that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head it this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.
Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.
And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them.
They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.
They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.
“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation.
If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger.
If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.
But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.
“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…”
Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.
Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.
For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.
Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.
But, back to the passage at hand…
Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment.
He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5).
Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!
But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”
And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong.
Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.
The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.
Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.
Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!
And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).
Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.
It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.
I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.
We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.
And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.
And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes.
Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.
Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you.
And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.
Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God!
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord.
We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem.
One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.
But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen.
Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
I’m a creature of habit.
Which is probably why I love the church so much.
The church, at her best, is a series of habits that habituate us into knowing more about who we are and whose we are.
For instance, we use a lectionary cycle with particular scripture readings that work in such a way to continually remind us about the nature of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We sing the same songs and say the same prayers because those things shape us in ways both seen and unseen. We follow a liturgical calendar to remind us that God’s time is not the same thing as our time.
And because I’m a creature of habit, the last six months have been quite unnerving.
I’ve lost the regular rhythms of Sunday morning worship with my community of faith, I no longer drive my kid to his preschool and politely wave at the other parents, and I haven’t been able to host friends and family members for regular meals in the backyard.
I’ve created new habits of online worship, and ZOOM hangouts with friends and family, and even Facebook Live Bible Studies, but none of it feels the same.
And yet, there are some habits from before that I’ve kept.
I like to run. Well, “like” might be too strong of a word, but I am a runner. It helps to keep me both physically and mentally healthy in spite of whatever else might be going on in the wider world. And so, regardless of the pandemic and the changes it brought to all of our lives, I’ve kept running.
But, as a creature of habit, I run the same routes over and over and over again.
That is, until this morning.
At 6:30am, under the light of the moon, I set out from my house for a quick little 5k around the neighboring neighborhoods. I made it about 1/3 through the route when I discovered the road in front of me was blocked off due to construction and I would either need to turn around and cut my run short, or turn down an unfamiliar street and hope that I would be able to find my way back out again.
And, for some strange reason (read: Holy Spirit), I took the path untraveled.
It looked just like all of the other streets I run on in the mornings, with all of the houses blanketed in darkness while people are still sleeping, except when I made my way around the first bend in the road I saw a house in the distance that was lit up like you couldn’t believe. And, within a few strides, I found out why…
The house was already (or still?) decorated for Christmas.
I could see a full Christmas tree in the living room window adorned with lights and ornaments, there was a scattering of pre-lit plastic reindeer robotically frolicking across the yard, and there was even an inflatable Santa Claus waving manically back and forth right next to the chimney.
Let the reader understand: Today is the 7th of October, a full 79 days before Christmas!
The creature of habit in me scoffed at the scene this morning. I thought, “Do these people not know the importance of keeping seasons in their season? It was one thing to see Halloween candy in the stores around the 4th of July, but Christmas decorations before Halloween???”
So I kept running, turning my thoughts over and over in my head until I realized that having Christmas decorations up already (or still?) is actually perfect for the time we find ourselves in.
The psalmist reminds us that “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Which is just another way of saying, there’s no season in which God’s love is not steadfast.
The incarnation of God in Christ is a forever and always event, not something to be simply relegated to a particular month or a particular set of decorations. Christmas is now and forever and that’s Good News! It’s really Good News in a culture in which we live according to Presidential Election cycles more than the Gospel of Jesus, when we withhold love from one another because of particular political signage adorning front yards or bumper stickers, and when our habits have all been turned upside-down by a virus.
By the time I got back to the house, and had my theology straightened out, I had to think long and hard about whether or not I should get out my own Christmas decorations. After all, now is the perfect time to remember that Jesus is the light of the world, born to us and for us, and he is the reason for every season.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We might not realize it, but we often “sing our faith.”
Well, at least we did back in the days we actually got together in-person for worship.
Nevertheless, in the United Methodist Church we take seriously the act of singing and how much it teaches us about who we are and who we are.
There are some hymns that, even if I just sing part of verse, you will probably be able to fill in the rest:
Jesus loves me this I know ______
Amazing Grace how sweet the _____
O come, o come, Emmanuel _____
Jesus Loves Me, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1860. I learned it from my great-grandmother who would sing it just about every time I visited her, it’s one of the de facto songs of Sunday school classrooms, and I can even remember it being used in Preschool as a way to get all of our attentions.
But Jesus Loves Me, for all of its lovely qualities, has only been around for 160 years.
Amazing Grace, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1779. It’s ubiquity cannot be overstated. I can’t think of a funeral I’ve done where it wasn’t the number one requested hymn – it shows up in the background of hit Television shows, and I’ve heard it quoted from the lips of more politicians than I can count.
But, even with all the amazing qualities of Amazing Grace, it’s only been around 240 years.
Ah, which brings us to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It’s one of the preferred songs for the season of Advent, it has been covered by bands from the likes of Pentatonix to Sufjan Stevens, and it was written in the 9th century.
It’s over 1,000 years old.
I mean, think about that for just a moment…
Christians have used these words to articulate our faith for a very long time.
The hymn is older than the United States, the printing press, and even Timbuktu!
And there’s something notable about Christian hymns and how they’ve changed over time. For, if you take a gander at O Come, O Come, Emanuel, the hymn is largely about Jesus, and only secondarily about us. That is, those who follow him.
But as the years and the centuries pass by, the hymns start to flip, they focus more on us and only secondarily about Jesus.
It’s why you can tune to a Christian radio station today and the subject of almost every song is us.
“I’m so in love with you Jesus!”
“Our God is greater, Our God is stronger!”
In our singing, we’ve become the subject of our own worship.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, written from behind bars, contains one of the most interesting elements of any of his letters: a hymn.
The so-called Christ Hymn is tucked away here in the second chapter and it predates Paul’s letter.
It’s older than the epistles, it’s older than the gospels, it’s a song the earliest Christians used to articulate their faith.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It might not sound as catchy as something you can experience on YouTube or on the Radio today, but it’s radical.
It’s meant to shock us, this little collection of verse that Paul shares with the Philippians. Most of us, however, barely respond to it at all because we’ve heard it all before.
But listen again to this: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Again, those lines aren’t original to Paul, in fact, the early Christians who put the hymn together got the words from Isaiah 45 which contains one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry.
Idolatry is whatever happens when we worship any of the little g gods in our life rather than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Idolatry is when we hold up a political candidate as if they will be the ones to save us.
Idolatry is when we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives so long as we can keep the economy stimulated.
Idolatry is when we are so wedded to the powers and principalities of this life that we no longer notice the sin we’re in.
So what is it that Paul does with this song against idolatry. Or, better put, what did the earliest Christians do with it? They stuck Jesus right in the middle.
They, to put it in theological terms, violated the Law with the power of the Gospel.
It’s as is Paul is saying, or perhaps singing, “Jesus knew that power and might aren’t things to be taken but instead given up. Jesus emptied himself of all things. Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich. Jesus gave up his royal robes for a servant’s towel. Jesus humiliated himself to the point of humility. Jesus blessed those who persecuted him. Jesus turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, and forgave no matter the cost. And because that who Jesus is, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
And that’s shocking – it’s shocking because the name that is above every name is Yahweh – I AM. It is the One who spoke from the burning bush to Moses, the one who delivered a people enslaved all the way to the Promised Land, the One who turned the world upside down.
Paul mics drops through the centuries this frighteningly Good News – The Lord is Jesus.
John Wesley, founder of this crazy thing we call Methodism today, said that if God wanted to, God could’ve been Sovereign. That is: God could’ve controlled us like puppets and made us do every little thing that God wanted. God could’ve smacked us into shape for stepping out of line or rewarded us with little prizes for making good choices.
But instead, Wesley said, God chose to be Jesus.
God chose to come across the great chasm between Creator and Creature to dwell among us in the muck and mire of life.
God took on flesh, in humility humiliated God’s self to come and be with us.
God became Jesus for us.
It happens a lot in my line of work – the unannounced drop by, the casual (but not really) phone call, the email filled with ellipses. Someone shows up in my life, offers a few remarks that really have little to do with anything, when they finally share what they’ve kept all bottled up.
A wife who’s been cheating on her husband.
An individual who fled the scene after a hit and run.
A kid who made one too many bad choices at a party.
And almost every one of those conversations ends the same way – with a question.
Having emptied themselves of the baggage, having confessed the condition of their condition, they then ask, “Do you think I’m a sinner?”
“Do you think I’m a sinner?”
And one of the great privileges of my profession is that I get to answer that question like this:
“Of course you’re a sinner… but so am I. And Jesus happens to loves sinners.”
What do we really think God is like? Is God angry with us, is God a totalitarian dictator who is willing to torture us into better behavior? Is God keeping a ledger of every little mistake we make in order to determine where we should end up in the end?
Or, is God like Jesus?
Is God the One who, in humility, takes on flesh just to welcome outcasts and sinners?
Is God the One who, time and time again, describes the Kingdom like a wedding feast to which all of the wrong kinds of people are invited?
God became what we are. That’s what the Christ Hymn is all about, it’s what Paul is banging over the heads of the disciples in Philippi – God became what we are.
It is in God’s unending graciousness that God travel into the far country, into the brokenness of this world, our world, which is not God and is so often against God. And God made, and makes, that journey to us, for us.
Jesus is God, says the hymn that has articulated the faith longer than any other hymn.
And, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones.
God says to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you,” even though scripture condemned her behavior.
God says to the sinning tax collector, and the murderer, and the fill in the blank, “I’m feasting with you tonight,” even though scripture calls them unclean.
God says to the thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though scripture claims the opposite.
God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, forgives those who haven’t a clue in the world and those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks and cavorts with the very people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.
Which is kind of the whole point.
God chose to die, even death on a cross, out of love for the sinners we are.
Contrary to how we often discuss it, both publicly and in secret, God doesn’t respond to the crosses we build in this life with more crosses. God doesn’t abide by an eye for an eye. Instead, God’s answer to our brokenness and our sinfulness is Easter.
And that is humiliating.
It’s humiliating because we don’t deserve it.
We worship a crucified God, hanging dead on the cross because we put him there.
And God comes back, to us!
Jesus, whose name is above all names, Jesus is the one to whom we owe our allegiance – the one we worship. Jesus is God. And God, knowing our sin, chose to be with us and for us.
That’s the faith we sing.
Not some version of our own progress toward better-ness. Not some repetitive chorus about where we become the subjects of our worship.
The faith we sing is that God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us. Amen.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the time or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. When he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Think and Let Think · A Job To Do
You want to hear about Josh don’t you?
Everybody wants to know about Josh. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, or even what I say, it always comes back to him.
Which, to be fair, makes sense.
He turned my life upside down before he did it to the world, who wouldn’t want to know more?
But if you want to know about Josh, you need to know what my life was like before he showed up.
I was happy.
Well, that’s not true. But I was really good at making it seem like I was happy.
You know the whole married, kids, nice job, mortgage, decent neighborhood. I traveled a lot for work back then and I was a frequent guest a particular airport bar. I’d be coming in, or going out, or not really knowing the difference when I would sit down and the bartender knew what to bring before I could even ask for it.
And it was during one such barstool session that Josh arrived.
He sat down right next to me and he said, “Pete, you’re going to make a killing on this trip, huge bonus is coming your way, but I’ve got something better for you.”
To be clear, I’d never laid eyes on this guy in my life, and here is is telling me about my work and even calling me by name. I should’ve known then that it was something not normal. But I didn’t, and I just went along with him.
“Sure,” I said, “That makes total sense, except business has been lousy and I can’t even remember the last time I got a bonus.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m in the miracle business and I know one is coming your way. But, again, I’ve got something better for you. Why don’t you finish your drink and follow me?”
Maybe it was the 3rd too many drinks I had already consumed, or the fact that he appeared to know more than he should, or maybe it was something else, but I did get up from that barstool and I followed him straight out of the airport.
And, honestly, I never looked back.
But you don’t want to know about me. You want to know about Josh. You want to know if it’s all true, if it all really happened.
Well, I can tell you the truth, not the crazy stuff that went around on Twitter, or even the low-quality YouTube videos from so-called eye witness.
I was there, for all of it.
Like the time he fed everyone in the park. Do you know that one?
See, we’d been in the park with him all day, Josh had quite a following at that point, he talked most of the day about all sorts of things that sounded nice but didn’t make a lot of sense. At least, it didn’t at the time. He was so good with crowds, it was like he knew exactly how to play them and how to lift them up and bring them down and keep them on the edge of their toes.
But we had been there all day, and when he finished talking he started walking throughout all the people and started curing some of the sick and comforting the downtrodden and no one wanted to leave.
But they were getting hungry.
And then Josh said, “This is a nice size crowd today. You think we have about 5,000? Too bad we don’t have any food to give them. Pizza sounds nice.”
“Pizza?” I said, “Do you know how expensive it is to feed 5,000 people pizza?”
He ignored me and spotted a kid on the other side of the park walking home with a pizza in his arms and he ran after him. Josh came back a minute later with the pizza, and the kid, and said that the boy had agreed to let us borrow the pizza. I mean, who ever heard of borrowing a pizza? But then he told me to round everyone up and to see how far we could stretch it out.
So I grabbed a few pieces and handed them to the closest person and when I went back to the box it was still full. And it was full every time I went back for more. Until everyone in the park had their fill and we even had leftovers.
By the end of the spectacle it was clear what had happened. At first, people just assumed the slices were being passed out from the middle of the park where a whole boatload of pizzas had been delivered. But the word got around that Josh had fed the entire park with just one box of pizza, and they started calling it the greatest miracle of all time and they said that Josh should be elected to the Senate, or even the White House with the kind of powers that he had.
That’s when things really started to change.
Because up until then, Josh seemed content for his miracles to be a substitute for the message. But after the powerful pizza moment, he was convinced that any miracle would give people the wrong impression. He talked about his death a lot at the time and none of us really listened. We were too busy eating our pizza. And even when he talked about a New Order and the first being last and the last being first, it all sounded nice but it couldn’t quite compare with sick kids getting better, and people walking away from their wheelchairs.
But, like I said, things changed after the pizza.
He talked about his death all the time, and those riotous crowds started dwindling. They waited for a miracle and all they got was hot air. He started telling all these stories that didn’t make much sense, like the one about a man abandoned on the side of the road and only a homeless man stopped to help him. Or the one about the dad who sold the family business and gave the proceeds to his youngest son who blew it all in Vegas only to return home penniless and his dad threw him a giant party.
I couldn’t blame the crowds for leaving. I mean, here he was in one day fixing the hunger problem, filling the bellies of thousands. Why couldn’t he run for office and fix all sorts of other things?
But Josh just kept saying the same thing each time, how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously they would still die eventually. He’d talk about a new kind of food, a food that would really fill the world. In fact, he once said that unless we were all filled with him, we would stay dead forever. But if we fed on him, he would raise us from death for good.
But what you really want to know is where he is now. Why did he leave if there’s still so much work to be done?
Well, that’s honestly what I wondered at first too, until I remembered all the stuff he used to say.
Josh’s final earthly act was just as bizarre and paradoxical as his bizarre and paradoxical life was. He had already been killed and raised from the dead. He had been with us for forty days talking to us about all the stuff we had already gone over. When one day he said he wanted to go for a hike. So we filled our bags with sandwiches and headed for the woods. We hiked and hiked until we came to a clearing.
He looked up into the sky and said, “It’s time for me to reign with my Father.”
And one of us said, “Wait, wait, wait. If you’re about to do something really cool, can we at least call the news station to get a camera out here? And if not that, can I at least put it on Facebook Live?”
And Josh said, “No. Listen to me. I know this doesn’t make sense to you. But hasn’t all of this been weird? I am leaving. But I’m not really leaving. It’s time for me to rule over the cosmos, but I’m sending you another soon. I want you to get it through your thick skulls one last time, the world depends on it: The New Order does not come because you or anyone else can do anything to make it happen. I am the New Order; It is me and it is in me. It’s in you. When I ascend I am taking the whole world with me.”
Then he looked up again and continued, “I know it won’t seem like it right now, but this is nothing new. I am simply making manifest what I’ve been doing all along. No meddling, divine or human, spiritual or material, moral or immoral can save the world. Your salvation is already here, in me. The only thing you have to do is trust me.”
And with that he started floating, subtly at first, just a few inches off the ground. “Listen,” he said, “We don’t have long, and you have work to do. But its not the work that you think. It’s not your job to fix anyone or save anyone. Hell, it’s not your job to fix or save yourselves. All you need to do is go and tell everyone what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. Tell them they are forgiven. And when they don’t believe you, because they won’t, tell them again. Tell them again and again and again until it seeps into the marrow of their very existence. Tell them I’ve gone and done for them what they never could for themselves. Tell them. And don’t let them forget.”
And then he disappeared.
We were all stupefied and kept looking hoping against hope that maybe it was just a trick of the light until we realized that he was gone. But the strangest thing was, it didn’t really feel like he was gone. It felt like he was right there with us.
And that’s when two crazy bearded men came tumbling out of the woods and said, “What the hell are you all doing standing around like that? Didn’t you hear what he said? Go. You’ve got a job to do.”
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Blakely about the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 17.22-31, Psalm 66.8-20, 1 Peter 3.13-22, John 14.15-21). Josh works for Longwood University and is currently completing a Masters Degree at Duke Divinity in order to pursue ordination as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including serialized stories, knowing your audience, Spiritual But Not Religious, TikTok church, worship statistics, God’s exams, faithful evangelism, baptismal remembrance, and seeing the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Graphic Novel
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Something happened to Stephen.
What exactly? Well, scripture doesn’t give us much.
All we know is that he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the earliest days of the church. He was full of the Spirit and, apparently, had the face of an angel, but he was eventually dragged before the council and accused of blasphemy.
His response to the accusation?
Stephen tells a story, in fact he tells the story of scripture from Abraham to Jesus.
And it gets him killed.
The lectionary text for today doesn’t give us the whole speech from the first martyr, but the speech sealed his fate. Stephen repeats the history of God with God’s people and points them to the truth of Jesus’ lordship. But that is enough for those who gather. So much so, they cover their own ears and rush against him, drag him outside of the city, and stone him to death.
Such is the fate of those who choose to speak the truth.
And the truth Stephen told was a story that he would not have picked on his own.
After all, why would anyone tell a story that would get them murdered?
Something happened to Stephen.
And the something that happened, was Jesus.
This is who Jesus is, Stephen tells the crowds, the long awaited and exalted Messiah who rules now and forever. Jesus Christ is Lord.
We call that a confession. For, to confess the Lordship of Christ is to affirm there is no other lord over our lives. It means that our allegiance is to Jesus and to no one else. It means we cannot remain as we are.
Which sounds good and fine until you consider the countless others that are constantly vying for our allegiance even today, and how stuck we are in our ways.
For instance, we like to talk about the Freedom of Religion in the US. It means we’re free to exercise our faith, so long as we do so within certain limits. It means that you and I can say and do and believe and act according to a tradition, and that we are somehow protected in our practice.
And yet, this Freedom that we hold so dear has often resulted in religiosity being confused with national allegiance.
The terms “good American” and “good Christian” have become tied to one another without us having to consider whether or not those things have anything to do with each other.
Part of our presumed goodness, as Americans or Christians, has a lot to do with not upsetting the status quo; a certain delight in things remaining the same and never calling anything into question. Politeness and kindness and deference have become virtuous in a way that those behaviors are called upon to be emulated from the time we’re children whether its in a public school classroom, or tucked away in the furthest reaches of a Sunday school lesson.
But this story of Stephen is an ever ringing reminder to us practitioners of polite and civil religion that once there were Christians who did things we would never imagine – who quite joyfully parted with possessions, their families and friends, and even their very lives in order to remain faithful.
There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.
But now we’re addicted to whatever lies disrupt our lives the least.
The vast majority of us live under the tyrannical presumption that each of us get to do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want to whomever we want. And we have the gall to call it the pursuit of happiness.
In this distorted view of reality, every person gets to make up his or her mind based on the presumption that our choices are made free from the influence of others.
It doesn’t take long to look around and see how much we really are under the influence of other people and other things. Our diet of media consumption alone says a tremendous amount about what we think, believe, speak, and act.
Christianity, on the other hand, reminds those of us with ears to hear that we don’t really have minds worth making up. Precisely because we regularly chose to do things we know we shouldn’t.
And we do it all the time.
We struggle with the choices we make, and the stories we consume, and even more the stories we tell.
And it’s not just a matter of which grocery store to shop in and what television shows to watch. We’re talking about what’s good, and true, and beautiful.
But how in the world could we ever be expected to know what choices to make?
That’s, actually, kind of the point of the church. The church grabs hold of us and says, “Look, you don’t know what powers and stories have you under their control, so we’re going to make you part of this story instead, the story of Jesus.”
We might like to think that we had something to do with all of this, that we chose Jesus in our time of need. But the truth is, we don’t get to chose God, nor would we on our own.
I mean, why would anyone willingly sign up for turning the other cheek, and giving away 10% of their income, and reaching out to the last, least, lost, little, and dead?
God chooses us, in spite of us.
God happens to us.
Just like God happened to Stephen.
And we can read this story of his willingness to proclaim the truth, we can encounter the punishment that rained down upon him by the crowds, and we might feel tempted to just remove ourselves form the wider society. If people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus, why bother risking life and limb? And, without even realizing it, we find ourselves back in the position of doing whatever we can to maintain the status quo and to avoid upsetting the apple cart at all costs.
But, turning things upside down is what we do.
Or, at the very least, it’s what Jesus does.
A Christian is someone who calls a thing what it is. Which is just another way of saying that Christians tell the truth.
And we don’t do much of that these days.
Instead, we want to hear about God’s love, and mercy, and grace.
Which is all true and good and beautiful.
But we often talk about those things at the expense of telling the truth.
We want everyone to be happy all the time.
But how in the world can anyone be happy in a world of such horrific and terrible violence?
How can anyone be happy in a world in which an innocent black man can be murdered for no other reason than the color of his skin? How can anyone be happy knowing that what happened to Emmett Till is still happening even in 2020? How can anyone be happy when an indiscriminate virus is actually discriminately affecting certain people more than others?
As Christians, our call isn’t to happiness. Particularly when one’s happiness is usually achieved through someone else’s suffering.
Our call is to a life of adventure. The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us again and again that we’ve been grafted into the strange new world of the Bible through the work and the life of Jesus Christ.
Or, to put it another way, think about a time you received a gift you didn’t want. Perhaps you were hoping to get a new bicycle for your birthday but instead you got a book. Maybe you hated the book because you really really wanted that bike, but then one strange rainy afternoon you picked up the book and were immediately transported to another world. And, low and behold, you were trained to have wants you didn’t know you should have.
That what the church is all about – it’s an adventure we didn’t know we wanted to be on.
The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.
We tell the truth and we have to the truth told to us.
That’s the name of the game.
And, frankly, it’s not something we would really want on our own. It’s something that happens to us. It happened to Stephen all those centuries ago. It has happened to countless saints over the years who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, stood up and said things they never would’ve on their own.
Without those who tell the truth, we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes over and over again.
It has been rightly said by many people in many places that America’s original sin is racism.
This is the truth.
It has plagued every single moment and every single decision and ever single interaction. It festers in the foundation of all that we hold dear. And we still carry it with us in all of our comings and all of our goings even today.
And rather than confronting the truth of the condition of our condition, we act like it’s not real.
But it is.
I alluded to it already, but a few months ago Ahmaud Arbery went for a jog one afternoon and it ended in his death. Two white men saw him run past their lawn and decided to chase him down with weapons in a truck.
And it’s not some isolated incident that happened in some far away place.
That racism happens whenever someone locks their doors when driving in particular neighborhoods, whenever someone crosses the street because of someone walking toward them, whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to whatever they might classify as other.
And we, more often than not, cover our ears whenever the term racism is uttered. And, to be clear, when I say we in this instance I mean those of us who are white. It is precisely our white fragility, to use a term that has come into vogue as of recent, that results in black bodies being locked up in prison at a staggeringly disproportionate rate, punished in schools for lower offenses than their white peers, and buried in cemeteries for committing the crime of running while black.
Christians need to be judged for their complicity in systems that are racist.
Christians need to speak the truth about what is right and wrong and good and evil in our society.
It will obviously create conflict and not everyone will be happy, but at least we’ll be talking about things that really matter.
Like Black Lives, for instance.
Because right now, black lives don’t seem to matter at all to those of us who are white.
Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken months of discourse and social media upheaval before Ahmaud Arbery’s attackers were arrested.
Christianity isn’t a story we would choose on our own because it requires so much of us. It calls us to look into the mirror and realize that when we read a story like the one about the stoning of Stephen, we are less like Stephen and more like the crowds who covered their ears and rushed forward. Christianity forces us to come to grips with our own sinfulness and our inability to transform ourselves.
After all, that’s why we call Jesus our Savior. It implies our need to be saved, and in particular our need to be saved from ourselves.
But we don’t like the idea that there’s anything wrong with us. So instead we trade out the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of the status quo. We say pithy things like, “Jesus was killed because he wanted us to love each other.”
But that’s crazy.
Jesus wasn’t killed because of his talk of love – Jesus was killed because he challenged the powers that be. He was killed for telling the truth.
That is the story given to us, a story that confronts us.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
I ran a half-marathon yesterday afternoon. 13.1 miles in roughly two hours all over the Woodbridge area. I was supposed to the run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC last Saturday but it was canceled in light of the Coronavirus. However I had been training for long enough that I figured, “Why not just go out and see if I can do it?”
The weather yesterday was perfect, giving extra meaning to the “this is the day that the Lord has made” and I decided to rejoice and be glad in it by putting one foot in front of the other until I put in the requisite miles.
Now, a day later, I can tell you there wasn’t much to rejoice about.
Or to put it a different way, my legs are sore!
During the months of training I was looking forward to being surrounded by scores of people all running toward the same goal. I was excited about the prospect of passing the finish line to be embraced by my family in celebration. I even anticipated the proud feeling of wearing around the medal for the rest of the day.
Yesterday was different.
I ran all alone for two hours. I didn’t even tell my family that I was going to do it. And the only prize for completing it was knowing that I did it.
A lot of us have been experiencing profound feelings of isolation as the Coronavirus has forced us to remain physically separated from one another and forced us to limit our interactions outside of our homes. For some of us we’ve retreated into new or familiar books, we’ve binged terrible and incredible television shows, or we’ve picked up the phone to call people we’ve needed to reconnect with for a long time.
But for others of us, we’ve retreated further into our minds and our worries and our anxieties. We keep checking out bank accounts and wonder how we’re going to make it through all of this. We see updates from others on social media that make it seem like they are having a vacation while social distancing while our time have felt nerve wracking.
And yet, as Christians, we believe that each new day is a gift from the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we have to force ourselves into optimism, but it does call us to rejoice knowing we’ve been given another day. The season of Lent, the season we’re in right now, is an ever-present reminder that tomorrow is never promised and that the bell will toll for us all. We didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us of this but it certainly has helped to focus our attention on that which we cannot take for granted.
I for one am grateful that I was able to get outside yesterday and run, even if my body feels miserable today. I am grateful I have another day to spend time with my family. But most of all I am grateful to know that God has not abandoned us to our own devices.
The season of Lent always ends with Easter – a reminder that death is not the end.
If nothing else, that is certainly worth rejoicing.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
“True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is known for books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, and other quotes quotes like, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And yet, for a pastor to love the writing of Vonnegut is saying something, considering the fact that he was an outspoken agnostic humanist.
Or to put it a little more concretely, another one of his more famous quotes is: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
I hope the joke was on Vonnegut though, and that he’s now rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, lapping up the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.
Anyway. When I was younger, I came across another quote of Vonnegut’s that, for obvious reasons, has really stuck with me: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”
To me, this quote resonates right now particularly since we can’t actually go to church with the threat of the Coronavirus looming over public gatherings. The church is a people who gather together who cannot gather together right now. And still, the sentiment of the quote rings out whether we are meeting in-person or not. People don’t come to church to hear a preacher ramble on about a particular Biblical text, or offer up droning announcements, or even to say the prayers that they could say on their own whenever they want.
People come to church because they want to discover something about the Lord.
At times, this hoped-for-discovery is concrete – in the midst of uncertainty, people look for solid ground – in the midst of a diagnosis, people look for hope – in the midst of sorrow, people look to the Lord who will hold them when it feels like they can’t hold it together.
But at other times, it’s a little different.
Whether we would be able to articulate it or not, many of us gather as the people called church with one question on our minds: “What is God like?”
And, scripture does not disappoint.
This is, perhaps, why so many people flock to Jesus’ parables; they are all attempts at encapsulating the character of God in a story, such that upon hearing it we might catch a glimpse at the answer to our question.
In today’s passage, the choosing and anointing of David, we encounter the Lord who cares more about one’s heart than one’s outward appearance. If any line from this scripture is known by Christians it is that one. That particular line was even reappropriated famously by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
God, strangely and rather bizarrely, chooses David as the next King of Israel. To bask in the audacity of such a call is difficult for us, because we know what will happen to this shepherd boy. We can’t hear about his calling without already conjuring up the defeat of Goliath, the dancing before the Ark, and the domination of the territories that would result in the power of Israel.
And, more often that not, when we hear this story (if we hear this story at all), the boys of Jesse are paraded before the prophet Samuel and it’s all about David, and why David was selected, and how he would become King.
But this isn’t a story about David.
It’s a story about God.
A God who see more than we could possibly ever see.
A God who delights in making something of our nothing.
A God who delights in choosing the people we wouldn’t, to change the world.
So, why are you tuning in to this livestream? Or, why are you listening to it later? Are you here to hear my preachments? Or are you here because you want to hear something about the Lord?
God still speaks all the time. God speaks to us through Word and through Sacrament. God is made manifest in the means of grace and the hope of glory. God is there in the waters of baptism, with us in the bread and the cup, and with us in our each and every breath.
But God is not like how we so often think.
I mean, imagine God in your minds for a moment… What do you see? Is it an old man with a long flowing beard resting on some puffy clouds?
That’s Hallmark, not the Bible.
God is, for lack of a better word, different.
God is foolish, according to the ways of the world, because God sees something in David, something that no one else could see, not even Samuel.
And that’s because God is different.
God is like someone stuck in between being a teenager and being a full adult. For those of us in the throws of adulthood, I know this can sound a little off-putting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. God seems to make a whole bunch of mistakes, always trying out the wrong people for the wrong job, always seeing the world through a too glass-half-full attitude.
And yet we love to make God into our own image all the time, whether it’s in our art or in our words or in our preachments or prayers. Albert Schweitzer once said that every time we go looking for God, it’s like we’re peering down deep into the bottom of a well, and though we think we see something down there, what we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves.
But if you are brave enough to jump down into the well, down into the strange new world of the Bible, you will find a God who rebukes our desires to make God into our own image.
God is God, and we are not.
Think about it, God is like someone stuck in this never-ending youthful time of idealism even though everything in the world is screaming the contrary.
Who would be the best person to put in charge of the budding nation Israel? Surely a major modern general, or a lifelong diplomatic politician? “No,” God says, “I want that ruddy boy out wandering around with the sheep. The one who keeps whistling without a care in the world. I want the one who will throw it all away because of a rooftop peeping session. I want the one no one else wants.”
Are we sure we can even trust God?
On Pentecost, the beginning of this strange thing we call church, someone had too much to drink according to some people on the street. Furniture was tossed all around in the upper room, and there was the distinct smell of something burning wafting around in the air. People could barely understand this ragtag group of individuals who tumbled out into the busy streets with nothing to proclaim but the Good News of a free ticket of grace.
That was God’s idea of a good time.
One of the best stories Jesus ever told, a story squarely about God, is about two boys who were terrible to their father. The younger tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance and the older one resents his father for not throwing him a party even though he lived in his Dad’s basement. And the father, in the end, pulls out all the stops and throws the party to end all parties for the younger wayward son, and begs the older one to just relax and have a good time.
It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ stories end with parties, often filled to the brim with the lame, maimed, and blind, people with whom many of us wouldn’t be caught dead.
God is all over the place, frenetic in disposition, and often rambling on about new ideas and is constantly inviting us to join the ride. Frankly, God invites everyone to jump on the crazy train that is careening out of the station toward a destination only God knows where.
And on this trip, God notices all the things that we’ve stopped noticing – blind beggars, and widow’s coins, and children willing to share their lunch. God screams for attention and keeps pointing out the mistakes of the pompous, the self-righteousness of the wealth, and the injustice of the powerful and the elite.
God even has the gall to proclaim that only kids get in to the kingdom, and that its virtually impossible for a rich person to get in. And, to make it even more confounding, God rounds that one out with the whole, “But nothing is impossible for God.”
I wonder why no one took the time to explain to God how the world really works. Surely, a disciple or a prophet or even a stranger could have informed the Lord how to behave properly and stay in line. Or, at the very least, God should’ve taken a good hard look in the mirror and decided to shape up.
But no. God just keeps bumbling around hanging out with the disreputable types, spending the morning with the sick and those of ill repute, lunch with the tax collectors, and then late night snacks with the questioning religious authorities.
God shows up with friends at a party uninvited, encourages everyone to drink the good wine, and then rubs hands together until the wine overflows, only to move on to the next venue where God is similarly uninvited.
And, because God behaves this way, people will often approach the Lord at these parties, words will be said, voices raised, and even faces smacked. But does God ever raise God’s voice, does God bring the smack down on those who lean toward violence? In short, does God act the way we would act?
God is like someone who wants to know us better and has plenty of opinions for how we should be living our lives. In fact, God wants to know us better than we want to know God. God never stops inviting us to the party and even though we reject the offer more often than not, the offer always stands.
Some of us have even said, “No,” to God as politely or as emphatically as we know how, and God keeps calling us the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
God is intense, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, and a little too honest. God is always pushing the envelope, testing the boundaries of what we might call “proper behavior.” God is the one who sees a vision of the world that even on our best days we could never properly imagine.
And we wonder, why can’t God just calm down about all this stuff? If God really wants to be the God of all people, wouldn’t it be better it God toed the line and stayed unbiased about the comings and goings of the world? When will God relax and start acting like the God we want?
But, again, the story of scripture is not a story about us. It’s about God.
The Lord saw David’s heart and choose him, even though David would mess it all up in the future. We would hope that God would make better choices than picking a murderous adulterer to be the king of the nation, but then again, God chose to dwell among us and to redeem us and to save us.
And, though it pains us to admit, even though God came to usher in a new vision of the world, even though God came to set us free from our bonds to sin and death, something about God’s attitude and disposition made us want him dead.
God is different. But that’s what makes the Good News good. Amen.