You’ve Got A Friend In Me

John 15.9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and bide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no name town and decided to pop in. 

It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the short order cook. While Craddock sat at the count, making his way through some soggy eggs and very strong coffee, a black man entered the diner, sat down at a nearby stool, and ordered an asked for a coffee. The cook promptly turn around, looked at the man in the face, and said, “Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while point over toward Craddock. The cook remained firm and pointed at the door, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”

And with that, the black man sighed and slowly removed himself form the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to sit at the counter, he finished his meal, paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Did any of you feel any chills at the conclusion of the story? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the narrative and it’s enduring reminder about racism in this country, but for some of you this story will hit even harder. It will hit harder because it connects, deeply, with the strange new world of the Bible.

Fred Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism, bigotry, and belittling that happened a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before the crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes power particularly in light of its biblical connections. For, had Craddock been unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance and drove away without giving the whole thing a second thought.

But Craddock knew his Bible, he knew his Bible because he was one of the most important preachers of the second half of the 20th century and eventually became a teacher of preachers. 

And when he heard that rooster all those years ago, it changed his life forever.

I read that story of Craddock’s for the first time in a collection of his sermons years and years ago and the story has always stuck with me.

Which makes me wonder: Can any of you remember any particular sermons? 

Pause for a moment, if you don’t mind, and try. See if you can recall a particular phrase or story or major point. And, should it prove helpful, you can literally pause the audio or the video feed if it helps. Which, frankly, is not something I ever thought I would ever say in a sermon.

Can you remember a particular sermon?

More often than not we tell stories, or preachers preach sermon, in order that they might be remembered. Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke Divinity, believes that sermons and stories should actually function differently: She makes the case that a successful story, and a successful sermon, is one that isn’t remembered. 

Sounds a little strange doesn’t it?

I mean, I’ve stood in this pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last four years in hopes that you all might actually remember at least some of what I’ve said. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember much of what I said last Sunday!

Perhaps Dr. Davis is right – the best sermons are forgettable. They are the best because part of the Christian journey is showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear the Good News because it is the story that makes us who we are. We listen to it again and again because there are countless other narratives vying for our allegiances, but this story, the Gospel, the Good News, is the one that is the difference that makes all the difference. 

And yet, there are some things we receive, from the pulpit or all sorts of other places, that do stay with us and reknit us into who we can be.

That’s what happened to Craddock. Somehow, someway, the story of Peter and the rooster from the Gospels stuck with him such that he could recognize something profound in his own life. 

God, in a sense, worked through a story to speak a truth about Craddock that he needed to hear.

When Jesus gathered with his friends for their final evening before the crucifixion they shared bread and wine, Jesus washed their feet, and he left them with parting thoughts about what it would all look like on the other side.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I’ve said all of this to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends.”

Friends? 

Jesus calls the disciples, us, his friends?

It’s one thing to sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but it’s another thing entirely to think “what a friend Jesus has in us.”

The friends around the table that night with the Lord will shortly deny him, betray him, and abandon him.

In our own lives, like Craddock, we regularly fail to see the Jesus in one another as we constantly deny the value/worth of other people, we chose to look out for ourselves far more than we do for other people, and when all is said and done we’re far more content knowing Jesus is our friend than trying to imagine ourselves as Jesus’ friends.

The words we hear in one time and place can take on an entirely different meaning if we receive them in another time and place. 

Imagine the times you’ve heard a friend remark, “It’s so good to see you.” We can easily brush that aside because we’ve heard those words countless time before. But now imagine getting to see a friend having not seen them throughout the entirety of the pandemic and they greet you with, “It’s so good to see you.”

It becomes something all together different.

Or think of Craddock – He probably heard, read, and even preached the story of Peter’s denial many many times, but it was only when he was in the diner that the words became real.

Consider those first disciples – on their final evening with Jesus, he calls them his friends. Maybe that meant a lot to them at the time, but chances are that it didn’t. It didn’t because within 24 hours Jesus was hanging on the cross. 

But then consider the disciples cowering in the upper room on the evening of Easter when the resurrected Jesus returns to those so-called friends and offer them a word of peace. 

“I have called you friends” takes on a whole new meaning. 

In another part of scripture, Abraham is called a friend of God. That might not seem like much, but the friendship between Abraham and the Lord was made manifest in a bizarre and confounding set of dynamic moments.

Abraham is a content octogenarian who is told to leave the comforts of him behind in order to become a stranger in a strange land, he is told that he will become a father in the twilight of his life, he is told to sacrifice his son, the one he loves, all because of his friendship with the divine.

It’s all too easy to water down the faith into being a call to just love one another a little bit more. But that’s not what faith is about. Sure, we have to love one another, that’s literally what Jesus says to the disciples before and after he calls them his friends. It’s not a question of where or not we love, but whether or not we love rightly.

We, the church, exist to welcome all people with love. But that love usually looks like a bunch of judgments. We talk about one another behind each others backs, we make assumptions that really have no basis in reality, and we are far too content to let whatever those relationships look like remain within the realm of Sundays and never to be found Monday through Saturday.

We, however, can know what real love and real friendship looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Love, to put it bluntly, is cruciform. 

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life, being betrayed, and then returning to the betrayers and calling them friends.

“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard form my Father.” In other words: friends of Jesus are those who share in the remarkable knowledge of what God is doing in the world.

And what is God doing?

God is intimately involved in the creation of a community predicated on a cruciform love, a love that really embraces everyone. A friend of God has this love and offers it toward other and it is not easy – it comes at a cost.

The world is not prepared for this kind of love and, more often than not, it will reject this love just as it rejected Jesus. Jesus, to use his own words, shows ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends, his friends who did not to deserve that title in the first place.

Jesus did that for us.

Chances are, you won’t remember this sermon. Frankly, neither will I. Our brains can hardly handle all of the information that we consume on a regular basis. But, at the very least, I hope we all rest in the somewhat discomforting knowledge that Jesus has called us his friends.

And I’ll end with the enduring words of Randy Newman:

“And as the years go by / Our friendship will never die / You’re gonna see its our destiny / You’ve got a friend in me.” Amen. 

To The End

Psalm 41.4-10

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them. 

John 13.1, 12-20

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should so as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speak of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

I have no idea how many people are joining us for worship tonight, or how many will watch or listen to this service later. Chances are, there aren’t that many.

And that’s fine. It’s fine because there weren’t a lot of people at the first Maundy Thursday service either. 

So we can rest in that strange and good knowledge tonight because we are where we should be. We, like those first disciples, have been gathered by God to be here, to hear what God has to say, and to be forever changed.

We call this Maundy Thursday. And the name comes to us from our the Gospel according to John when Jesus last feasted with his disciples before the crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”

In Latin, a new commandment is mandatum novum. “Maundy” is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

We are therefore mandated to do what we are doing tonight.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything.

Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions, of “you must do this and you must do that.”

All of the “musts” don’t must up to a very lively faith.

When the exhortative mode of Christianity becomes the predominant way we understand our faith, then the Church merely joins the long list of other social endeavors seeking to make people better people – it tells us what we have to do, instead of proclaiming what Jesus already did, for us.

The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.

John, however, takes the scene a little bit further. 

While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer rob, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist. 

Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Only after every disciples’ feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:

“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’”

Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable. 

Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another. 

And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us

We, however, can’t help ourselves from reasserting the narrative to make it about what we have to do but whatever we do in response is only possible because of what Jesus does first. 

We always want to know what we have to do to get saved when, in fact, this story is a ringing reminder that the Gospel tell us how Jesus saves us.

Or, as Philip Cary puts it, “The gospel doesn’t tell us to believe, it gives us Christ to believe in.”

In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.

This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.

Therefore, before we jump to any commandments, to any thoughts on what we must do, we do well to rest in the bewildering knowledge that the foot washing is a parable of God’s humiliation. Jesus lays down his garments just like he will lay down his life, Jesus offers grace to his betrayer just like he will extend forgiveness even from the cross.

And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end.

Including Judas.

Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrayed his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever.

But we can save the cross for tomorrow. For now, we are tasked with the challenge of coming to grips with the fact that none of us are any better or any worse than the disciples were on that first Maundy Thursday. 

Which is just another way of saying: Each and every one of us in need of cleansing. And, thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Christ offers us, because he loves us to the end. Amen.

Between Love & Hate

Psalm 35.17-21

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

John 15.18-25

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’”

Something happened.

It’s not altogether clear what the something is that happened, but something definitely happened.

We live in a very different world than we once did.

And I don’t just mean because of the pandemic.

There was a time when everyone seemed to assume that you would grow up, go to school, get married, have two kids, pay your taxes, and go to church.

That world no longer exists.

Whatever the something is that happened, it had a major impact on the church. For, it is no longer assumed that new people will keep streaming in through the sanctuary doors (back when we could have in-person services) nor will they willfully sit through an entire service from the comfort of their couches simply because that’s what people are supposed to do.

Church, now, is a choice. And it is a choice among a myriad of other choices regarding what we can do with our time. 

So, how has the church responded to this something that happened?

Well, in large part, we’ve decided that the best path forward is to convince people to love us because we’re a people of love.

Which, all things considered, isn’t such a bad idea. God is love, after all. Jesus does tell us to love God and neighbor. Maybe, just maybe, love is all we need.

So we, as an institution, created banners proclaiming the necessity of love, we crafted sermon series about how God loves everyone just the way they are, we dropped the L word as often as we could when, frighteningly, we’re not entirely sure we know what we mean when we talk about love.

Here’s an example from a sermon I listened to recently: “God loves you just the way you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay just as you are.”

What in the world does that mean?

Therefore, we find ourselves in a place where love is the key to being the church and even if we don’t know what it means, or even what it looks like, we at least know that, in the end, we all want to be loved.

And yet, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that following him means the world will hate us.

“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t an easy thing to hear from our Lord. 

Particularly when we’ve convinced ourselves the whole point of church is to love and be loved in return.

Here’s a brief thought-experiment – Let’s imagine, if we can, Jesus showing up today. What would he look like? With whom would he spend his time? What would he preach about?

Usually, when we picture Jesus, he’s this hippy-dippy character who throws up a peace sign every once in a while, he asks us to all get along, and above all he is nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. You don’t crucify someone for being nice.

If God just wanted us to be more loving, why did Jesus have to come to tell us that? 

If God is all about love, then why did God go through all the trouble of being this particular person, Jesus, at a particular time and a particular place?

Jesus knew that life wasn’t all that it’s often cracked up to be. He told stories about giving money away, he regularly ridiculed the rich, he belittled the religious authorities, he called into question all of the powers and principalities of his day.

And for that, and more, he was hated.

Take the whole Gospel in: the crowds grow and grow only to leave him abandoned in the end. 

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus?

If we can’t imagine being hated for our discipleship, we can, at the very least, recover how odd of a thing it is to be Christian. This whole proclamation we call the Gospel is an extraordinary adventure, and that’s not that same thing as wanting to be liked/loved by everyone.

Consider – Last week we looked at Jesus’ temptations from the Devil out in the wilderness. He doesn’t eat for forty days, he contends against the powers of Satan, and then he returns to call upon the first disciples. And, in our minds, we just kind of assume the earliest conversations went something like this: “Okay, so I’m God in the flesh. I’m the Messiah. And I finally figured out how to solve all the world’s problems… All we need is love. Now, go and tell everyone what I said.”

But, of course, that’s not what happened.

Because, again, if all Jesus came to do what push us in the direction of love, then why did everyone reject him. Why did the crowds, to use the language of our passages today, hate him?

Perhaps Jesus was hated because he refused to give the people what they wanted on their own terms. Remember – the Devil offered Jesus the power to institute feeding programs, the power over all earthly kingdoms, and even the power to instill faith in all people.

But Jesus refused.

Jesus refused because God’s kingdom cannot become manifest through the devil’s means.

But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Messiah of apathy, laziness, or indifference.

Jesus is very political – in fact, he is an entirely new politic. But the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates through his life, death, and resurrection is one that comes through the transformation of the world’s understanding of how to get things to happen.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use violence in order to achieve peace.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use coercive measures in order to make the Kingdom come.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use the powers and principalities to do anything

Therefore, the offense, the thing people hate, is not that Jesus wanted his followers to be more loving – the offense is Jesus himself. 

Over and over again he talks about bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly because he’s in the business of rectification.

He talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked for no reason other than the fact that they’re hungry and naked.

He talks about dying in order to be raised so that the whole of the cosmos can be raised with him for FREE.

Is is then any wonder that the world wasn’t prepared to welcome this Messiah?

It is any wonder that people have hated Jesus and his followers since the beginning?

Jesus was ultimately put to death not because he thought that the world could use a little more love, though we certain could. Jesus was killed because he embodied and proclaimed an entirely different reality that threatens anyone with any power.

Put simply, Jesus was killed for telling the truth.

For us today, the problem with Jesus’ truth-telling is that we, and the world, are drunk with deception, we hoard half-truths, and we live by lies.

Telling the truth is no easy endeavor – it got Jesus killed and it can upturn everything about our lives. But contrary to how we often water-down the gospel, there’s nothing safe about Jesus, no matter what VeggieTales might tell us.

Jesus offers freedom from our anxieties by giving us, of all things, a yoke to wear around our necks.

Jesus shares the possibility of transformation here and now by inviting us into his death (baptism) so that we might rise into new life.

Jesus promises our resurrection from the dead not with a wave of a magic wand, but by making of members of his very body redeemed by his blood so that we can become a community that is an alternative to the world.

And for that, the world might just hate us.

Why? 

Jesus forms us into a people who live by strange ways and by strange means. We are a community who gathers (even virtually) with people we share nothing in common with except that Jesus binds us to one another.

We are a community who believe in the transformative power of praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry, befriending the friendless, and hoping against hope.

We are a community committed to the least of these even if (and when) the world tries to convince us to do otherwise.

God in Christ has knit us together to be a people of love in a world that runs by hate, which is a very dangerous way to live.

It might sound difficult or even frightening, but its at least an adventure. The Gospel is not merely one thing after another, it’s the only things that really matters – it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Despite our best efforts, and all of our best intentions, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. We couldn’t save ourselves and we couldn’t save the world even though we certainly tried. We convinced ourselves that if we just loved each other a little bit more that things would finally be set right. But things largely stayed the same.

So what did God do? Was God delighted to give us an A for effort but an F for execution and therefore closed the door of the kingdom right in our faces? 

Actually, in a wild act of humility (read: humiliation) God came down to us, became one with us.

We always thought that the whole purpose of this thing called faith, this thing called church, was so somehow get ourselves closer to God. And then God came down to us, down to the level of the cross, straight into the muck and the mire of this life, all the way down into the very depths of hell.

He who knew no sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it.

Listen- This is not something that happened just for other people in other places – God still stoops down into your life and into mine. God has taken stock of all of our choices, the good and the bad, and still chooses to come and be God for us, with us, in spite of us. 

God loves you so much that God was willing to die.

Jesus died for you.

He lived his whole life as a refugee and amidst poverty, he endured reproaches and derision and abuse just so that you and I could escape death.

Jesus does this knowing full and well that we are the very people who would’ve shouted crucify.

Jesus is peculiarly obstinate.

And it is wonderful. 

Jesus does not need us, but we certainly need him. 

And that’s the scandal of the Gospel – Jesus, God in the flesh, chooses to live, die, and live again for us and we don’t deserve it one bit. 

No one does.

And we are now called to live in the light of that perplexing Good News. That light helps us to see ourselves and one another not according to the ways of the world where we measure everyone and everything by worth, but according to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

The world might hate us for it, but Jesus has overcome the world.

Something has happened. And things are not as they once were. But this is still good news, because the something that happened is called Jesus. Amen. 

People Look East!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lauren Lobenhofer about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 64.1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9, Mark 13.24-37). Lauren serves as the senior pastor at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent(ures), the Theotokos, liturgical purity, parental love, divine ceramics, repetitive prayers, the audience of worship, the Flying V, spiritual gifts, eschatological contemplation, and Wendell Berry. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: People Look East!

The Complimented Community

1 Thessalonians 5.11 

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

“What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?”

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but it’s one I ask people all the time. Before the pandemic it was one that I would drop on a crowded table at a dinner party, and now it is one that I offer up during Zoom sessions. And people have a hard time answering the question. That people struggle to answer the question points to two things: 1) We are (often) uncomfortable with speaking positively about ourselves and; 2) We live in a world filled with criticism which leaves little room for encouragement.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, on the other side of a vitriolic presidential election, it is essential to make more time to be present with others even though it is complicated by our current situation. Moreover, supporting others with our presence and our encouragement  is crucial at a moment like this because so many of us derive our meaning and value through what we do and we no longer know who we are outside of what we do. 

For me, personally, it’s been a joy (and somewhat overwhelming) to get on my computer every Sunday morning because so many of my closest friends are pastors. Therefore, when I scroll through Facebook and Twitter I am bombarded with all sorts of different churches and all sorts of different preachers. The joy comes in knowing that I get to experience other churches in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

And so, while preparing for my own online worship, I will take time each Sunday to scroll around on social media and listen for a few minutes to a number of different preachers and then I will send each of them a few sentences about what I enjoyed or appreciated or valued from their particular proclamation.

This has become an important habit of mine throughout the pandemic and it has been extremely disheartening to hear back from people who have received my encouragement with words like, “You’re the only person who has sent me anything positive about what I’ve been doing.”

I recognize that this is a particularly pastoral experience, but I can’t help but imagine how much this kind of environment is also present in those who live and work outside the church.

And it’s led me to wonder about what would happen if the countless laypeople and the countless pastors across the land gave time every day to the good work of building one another up particularly during a time such as this. 

When St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica he encouraged the people called church to encourage one another and build up each other. This was not simply a good community building exercise – it rests at the heart of what it means to be the body of Christ for one another and for the world. We, the church, are at our best when we are doing the work of complimenting one another so that we can begin to see ourselves the way God sees us!

So, this week, I encourage you to encourage someone else (or multiple people) – offer unsolicited compliments simply for the sake of the Gospel. 

After all, one quick note of encouragement or compliment could be the difference that makes all the difference. 

Making The Familiar Strange

Matthew 22.34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground. 

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.

Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence. 

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. 

Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.

And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.

This is no easy task.

For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love? 

And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.

Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.

That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.

And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along. 

That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.

But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.

Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”

“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.” 

The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.

“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.

It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.

And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.

Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor. 

Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”

More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.

When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.

When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.

When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.

Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything. 

However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn. 

We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?

A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”

Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.

Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)

Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”

Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!

The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen. 

But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities. 

And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization. 

Instead, love looks like the cross.

And that kind of love is dangerous.

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.  

Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point. 

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.

To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.

And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.

It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.

In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it. 

Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change. 

And, God is love. 

Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen. 

Love The Sinner

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It’s sounds so Christian, doesn’t it? 

Surely, when Jesus was delivering his sermon on the mount, he summarized the whole thing with love the sinner, hate the sin.

Surely, if we Christians lived according to those six words, the world would be a better place.

Surely, loving sinners and hating sin is what the church is supposed to do!

And yet, it’s not in the Bible.

In my experience, when people, and by people I mean Christians, say, “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are almost always referring to the LGBTQIA community. For them, it’s a Christian way to say, “I love my Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual friend, but I hate that they’re Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual.”

In our post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is the means by which we can cover our real feelings all while appearing congenial toward those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

However, over the last few years, I’ve heard Christians use the expression within the realm of political disagreement. And, frankly, its been rather amazing to see how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about the LGBTQIA community has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country.

“Well, I know that dirty rotten scoundrel is going to vote for Trump again, but he’s my brother so I still love him” Or, “If Joe Biden is elected he’s going to absolutely ruin this country, but he’s a Christian so I’ve got to try and love him.”

So, whether it’s disagreements about who can get married or who can lead the church or who should be President, love the sinner, hate the sin has become our go-to expression. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but in actuality it’s rather difficult to hate another person’s sin alone, without harming the sinner.

Sin! Can you believe you’re listening to a preacher talk about sin? We don’t talk about it much anymore in mainline protestant circles. 

Pastors, like me, would rather talk about God’s loving nature, God’s unending forgiveness, God’s desire for mercy, instead of God’s judgment. 

We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors than to tell you to tell your neighbor that they’re sinners. 

We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking something fresh and new even today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about – sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, repent or burn forever.

That stuff.

We’re largely afraid of sin today. And not sin as a particular set of behavioral patterns, but because talk of it simply makes us uncomfortable. I’ve heard from countless people on countless occasions how they don’t want Sunday morning to feel like a drag on top of their already difficult lives, so preachers like me talk about the Gospel without ever mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who once taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin.

And, because it has been removed from the lexicon of church, we don’t really know what sin is anymore.

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically mean “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God and from one another. Sin can be a choice, or a lack of making a choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the chief thing about sin: We all do it. 

All of us.

From the preacher preaching right now to every person listening.

We are all sinners.

But, more importantly, we are all sinners for whom Christ died.

Love the sinner – of course we’re supposed to love the sinner – that’s what Jesus did. The problem with it is that Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

And the distinction is important. It is important because if we say, “we’re going to love sinners” we will automatically view others as sinners before being our neighbors. Which, even though its true, it tends to put us in a place of judgment where we are the righteous and they, whoever they are, are not.

Loving sinners is further problematized by the fact that we already often understand and label others by their mistakes and failures and sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, or even the frequency, we are very quick to call people cheaters, adulterers, liars, etc.

Or, to put it another way, instead of seeing our neighbors as neighbors, we tend to see them through the lens of their biggest mistake.

When I started at my first church I was pretty nervous. I was fresh out of seminary, with a head full of ideas, and no real understanding of what I had gotten myself into.

Nevertheless, I found myself unpacking all my big and important theology books in my first office, all while day dreaming about what to say in my first sermon, when I opened the top drawer of the desk and found a sealed envelope with the words, “For The New Preacher” on it.

Up to that point I had not had a single conversation with the pastor I was following – the pastor had recently retired and moved away and I was therefore entering the church without any knowledge of the church.

But there was this envelope, in the desk, for me, and it was clearly left by the last pastor.

So, eager to glean anything that I could, I tore it open.

Inside I found a solitary piece of paper with the words, “DO NOT TRUST.”

Underneath which were five names of individuals from the congregation.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard I tried to forget the note, no matter how hard I tried to embrace the particular individuals in spite of what I read, my entire perspective had been upended by those three words: “DO NOT TRUST.”

The same thing happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. 

And yet, of course, Christians are called to love sinners. 

Because, in the end, that exactly what Christ does for all of us.

All of us would do well to remember that we’re in the same boat with everyone else. Which is to say, sinners are who we are. The best of us and the worst of us, we’re all sinners. The challenge with that recognition is that we are almost all better at recognizing the sins in others far before we can recognize them in ourselves.

Which brings us to the second part of the statement in question today. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

We’re mighty good at seeing and pointing out the sins in others. That’s what Facebook and Twitter are all about! There’s just something so enjoyable when we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

To bring it back to politics for a moment: We’ve seen the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the last two weeks with leaders from both parties speaking publicly about who should be elected (or re-elected) come November. And, without getting into specifics, both parties spent the majority of their conventions not talking about themselves and what they want to accomplish, but what’s wrong with the other party and how if those other people over there are elected (or re-elected) it will ruin everything. 

Judgement, contrary to the commands against it by Jesus, is our cup of tea.

And whenever we “hate the sin” we jump straight up onto pedestals of our own creation to look down about the weak.

Jesus himself spent his whole ministry with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. You know, people like us.

Jesus routinely chose to gather with the likes of the worst to break bread, to offer healing, and, perhaps most importantly, to offer them most precious gift of all: his time.

And he said to all those sinners, “Follow me.”

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Instead, when Jesus encountered the utter depravity of those in his midst, he offered them, strangely enough, forgiveness.

But we are not like Jesus. We regularly fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We see the world in all of its wrongness and we believe, deep in our bones, that the problems of the world can be blamed entirely on other people.

Even preachers, preachers like me, fall into this trap. Just take a gander at some of the sermons online throughout this pandemic, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find me, standing right here wearing a slightly different outfit, calling out the mistakes of others. I mean, this whole sermon series “That’s NOT In The Bible” is about calling to question the Christian types who use these non-biblical expressions which, at the end of the day, is remarkably judgmental!

And yet, the irony notwithstanding, saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us purveyors of judgment. It gives us the space to ridicule and belittle those with whom we disagree all while maintain some semblance of a Christian disposition. But whenever we fall back to that frame-of-reference, whenever we use it as the means by which we can justify our judgements, we fail to recognize the logs in our own eyes.

Should we pretend then that sin doesn’t exist and that we can continue merrily doing whatever we want whenever we want?

Or course not.

There is sin in the world, plenty of it. But before we go out pointing at all those sins, we all do well to look in the mirror.

Because all of us make bad choices. We all avoid doing things we know we should do. We all flock together for like-minded judgments against others. And we all keep dropping vaguely Christian expressions that aren’t in the Bible.

But, in the end, Jesus looks right at us, right into the depths of our being, and says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

And that’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we don’t deserve it.

Just look at the parables; more often than not they end with someone throwing out the ledger book, or offering forgiveness before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Just look at Jesus life; pronouncing forgiveness from the cross, or reconciling with the abandoning and disciples in the upper room, or choosing the murderous Paul to be the chief evangelist of the first century.

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and even the ones we’re proud of), God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees all of our self-righteous indignation, and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God has read all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, God knows our internet search histories and still stays, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God is there with us in the comments section of Facebook, God hears the sighs we offer in response to those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, God knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

We say it, we read it, we might even live by it (or think we live by it), but it creates more problems than it solves. Sure, loving sinners is what we’re supposed to do, but it often results in us lording it over those we deem sinners, which doesn’t sound a whole lot like love to begin with.

Loving sinners is the aim of the church, but most of the time we fail. We’ve simply got logs too big in our eyes to do much of anything.

Thanks be to God, then, for Jesus Christ who loves us and forgives us in spite of those logs. Amen. 

To My Youngest Sister On Her Second Wedding Anniversary

1 Corinthians 12.12-13

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

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Two years ago I stood before you, Mike, and a whole bunch of family members and I brought you two together in, what we call in the church, holy marriage. 

What makes it holy has nothing to do with those getting married and everything to do with the Lord who makes your marriage intelligible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can very distinctly remember the phone call I received way back when Mike asked for your hand. I can also remember that as soon as we hung up, I prayed and gave thanks to God.

I did the same thing the day you got married.

I gave thanks to God because your marriage to one another makes no sense outside of the God who delights in our coming together to become something new.

In the church we call that grace.

Today I give thanks again not because you’ve rejoiced with your partner for the last two years, or that we had such an awesome time at your wedding; I give thanks to God because your marriage is a sign, and a reminder, of the Spirit’s presence with us.

It forces people to confront the truth that your joining together points toward the unity in community that is the Trinity.

On the day of your wedding, I did my best (read: failed) to hold back tears when I watched you walk down the aisle. I grabbed your hands and placed them on Mike’s and asked you to make promises with each other about the future, a future that you could not possibly predict. I even made a joke (Jason Micheli did as well) that as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, “we always marry the wrong person.” We marry the wrong person because none of us knows what we’re doing when we get married. That we stay married to strangers who we never fully understand is yet another reminder of God’s grace. 

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On the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians bickered among one another about whatever it meant to follow Jesus. They refused to share communion with each other, they argued about who was really part of the new covenant, and they very quickly reverted back to the ways of life prior to Jesus interrupting their lives. 

All which prompted Paul’s letter to the church regarding the “body with many members” discourse. 

Today, preachers like me, use 1 Corinthians 12 to talk about how the people of a church just need to get along. After all, we all have different gifts we bring to the table.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve thought those same words being meant for those who are married. 

Two years ago, I told you and Mike that you were becoming one flesh, I talked about how the body of Christ would be made visible through your marriage to one another, and I even hinted at the fact that the promise you made was a reminder of God’s promise to remain faithful to us.

No matter what.

God has been with both of you in every moment of your marriage and was there long before you even met each other. God, in God’s weird way, brought you two together to remind the rest of us what grace, love, and mercy really look like. Because if a marriage isn’t filled to the brim with love, grace, and mercy, it will never work.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenant of your marriage is a reminder of the power and the necessity of the church. The church (for all her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the promise you made to each other. The church, itself, is a covenant and promise from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as the bridegroom. We, who call ourselves Christians, make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and brought to fruition in the empty tomb.

In your marriage you two have experienced what Christians experience every Sunday in worship: through hands clasped in prayer, the breaking of bread, the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the preaching of a sermon. 

Your marriage is a reminder of God’s marriage with us. And for that I give thanks.

Sincerely.

Your Big Brother

Walking and Talking

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 36-41, Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1.17-23, Luke 24.13-25). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including shame in the church, John Prine, preaching with authority, Jesus’ titles, The Good and Beautiful Life, loving the Lord, the preciousness of death, Peter and Social Distancing, and grace in retrospect. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Walking and Talking

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All Or None

Romans 15.4-13

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Here’s the scene:

A group of people from different backgrounds, ages, races, socio-economic statuses, marital situations, and countries of origin are sitting around a folding table in a dimly lit basement. Just taking a look around the room, it’s clear these people have nothing in common with each other, and the silence is palpable as they occasionally take turns refilling their sub-par coffee in their too-small styrofoam cups.

There’s a man, prematurely balding with an unkempt beard sitting at the far end of the table and he seems to be in charge. In front of him is a simple plate with a dried out piece of bread and a half-consumed bottle of merlot that seems to glow in the candlelight. 

“Welcome everyone,” he begins, “Welcome to the first meeting of the gathering.”

“Oh, is that what we’re calling ourselves?”

“Of course it is. We are the gathering. We are a people who gather together. Simple enough. Now, before I jump into the first bits of information, are there any lingering questions?”

“Yeah, who died and made you king?”

“Um, Jesus I guess. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Anything more substantive?”

“Aren’t we going to lay out some ground rules about who is in and who is out?”

“Ohhh, that’s a juicy one. The answer is yes.”

“What do you mean the answer is yes? That doesn’t answer my question at all. Who is in and who is out? What are the requirements for people to gather with the gathering? I think we should expect people to give up certain sins before ever being welcomed like, no more alcohol, certainly no smoking, and absolutely no tattoos.”

Another man chimes in, “I agree, and while we’re at it, lets make sure that only people in happy and healthy marriages are allowed in – no divorced people, we don’t want them screwing this up for the rest of us.”

And another person chimes in, “Absolutely, but why stop there? Now, I mean no disrespect to other people at the table, but its clear that some of you haven’t bathed in some time and we should have some expectations of cleanliness.”

This goes on and on with the list of who could be in getting smaller and smaller while the list of people out got longer and longer. And all the while, the man at the end of the table slowly takes swig after swig from the bottle of wine until it empties and he merely reaches under the table to pull out another and is about to start in on that bottle when they all turn their attention back to him.

“So what’s it going to be?” They say in unison.

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“Look,” he begins while wiping his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, “I’m coming to this just like the rest of us. I thought I had my whole life figured out. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I had all the benefits and all the privileges of the world until my world got turned upside down. And now I’m here with all of you, and there’s no going back. But it seems to me all of our squabbles about the in crowd and the out crowd have to stop.”

“Why? Don’t we want to make sure that only the best of the best get to be part of the gathering?”

“Well friends, that’s the whole thing right there. We are all here because we are not the best of the best, in fact there’s no such thing. It is our undeserving that brought us here to this place at this time and the sooner we own that the sooner we can get down to business.”

“Which is what exactly?”

“I’m getting there, hold your horses. God doesn’t just tell us what to do and that’s it. It’s not about having a set list of what’s right and what’s wrong and then living accordingly till the end of our days. God gives us something incomprehensible, in order that all of our differences, which are clearly manifold, and in all of our brokenness, again pretty obvious, that we might find some harmony.”

“Have you not been listening? We can’t even agree on whose allowed to join us or not and you’re already talking about harmony?”

“Yes, there will always be disharmony in our new budding community, but in our divisions we might start to discern the wonderful unity in plurality of the Trinity.
But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me try to come at it from another angle: God sees things that we cannot. That’s the message of the scriptures, all those who came before us in the people Israel, over and over again God found strength in the weak, and weakness in the powerful. God saw impossible possibility in the people God created and in their brokenness he brought them into new life.”

“But if we’re just a bunch of broken people, won’t the gathering be… broken?”

“Exactly! That’s the whole point. We can only welcome one another because Christ welcomed us. We’re all here because of him! Whether we’re weak or strong, young or old, good or bad. To him all of our voices have worth and value. To him, it doesn’t matter one bit whether we’re standing on the highest step or the lowest step of life, we are bound together by him. Forever.”

“Okay, I think I’m starting to see your point. So we’re like the band of mis-fits toys?”

“Sure, if you want to put it that way. But remember the way Jesus put it: We are his body. And a body has lots of parts all working together, and sometimes not together. It’s about figuring out how we all fit together and can work together to build one another up while also seeking the good of those who are not with us.”

“Okay, I’m with you, but are we seriously not going to set up any expectations or requirements to join?”

“Let me try to come at it one more time. How did Springsteen put it? ‘You don’t need no ticket – you just get on board.’”

“Fine, we’re open to anybody. But what are we going to do once all the ragamuffins join us?”

“It’s clear we need to move on, but I want to say something about that word you just used – Open. The gathering is not an “open” endeavor. Sure, in a sense, we are open to everyone. But it’s more than that. We welcome because we were welcomed. And when I say welcome I don’t mean the innocuous, “Anyone is welcome to join us” that we post on Facebook for a neighborhood barbecue, I mean the verb of the word – actually meeting people where they are and welcoming them into something that will radically upend everything they think they know. Isn’t that why all of you are here right now? You could be anywhere doing anything else, but instead you’re here with all these other people with whom you have nothing in common except Jesus.”

The table nods silently in affirmation as everyone considers the truth of the statement. If pressed most of them couldn’t answer exactly why they were there but they knew that they had to be. The different shapes and sizes and histories of the people around the table start to fade away as they start to see one another through the eyes of the one who came to change everything.

The mood has changed since the debates about expectations and without being told they start passing around the communal bottle of red, each tearing small pieces off of the loaf of bread.

“By the way,” the leader says, “I forgot to introduce myself earlier. My name is Paul and I’m glad you are here. I’m glad you’re here because this is kind of what it’s all supposed to look like. The gathering is a Spirit infused, multi-cultural, outwardly focused group that can bear with one another in love. It’s Christlike in the sense that we have our arms outstretched to those we know and those we don’t know. It means, on some level, that we see more than the world sees, and the last, least, lost, little, and dead are precisely the people for us.”

A woman sitting across the table is fidgeting with her fingers and says, “But, how are we going to organize ourselves? Don’t we need some structure?”

Paul thinks for a moment before saying, “Well, I guess we will have to institutional to some degree, but we have to avoid the many trappings of institutions. We have to steer away from self-preservation and move toward people-preservation. It’s not easy, but the gathering is a fellowship of people who are bound together by our faith in Jesus, and not an organization that exists for the sake of the organization.”

“So, we’re not a club and we’re not a civic organization?”

“As far from those things as possible. Ultimately one of the strangest things about who we are and what we’re doing is that we’re not really called to do much of anything at all. If anything, the only thing we have to do is celebrate that we don’t have to do anything. That’s the message of Jesus and his cross. God came to do what we could not and would not do. No amount of belief, or money, or morals can give salvation to us nor take it away. It is simply a gift for those who want it. No catch and no fine print involved whatsoever. If you want to know what the gathering looks like, save for a bunch of people hanging out in a basement, its like an outdoor wedding reception that refuses to stop on account of rain.

“Paul was it?” A quiet woman speaks for the first time, “Do you happen to have any more wine? We seem to have run out. And, while you’re at it, is there any leftover bread?”

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“No time like the present I guess. You see this bottle, and you see this bread? All of what we do and what we say and what we believe are caught up in these ordinary things that aren’t very ordinary. You see, when Jesus was still together with his friends on their final earthly evening together, after years of teaching and preaching and healing, he looked out at that ragtag group of would be disciples and knew that each and every one of them wasn’t good enough. He knew that, when the time came, they would either betray him, deny him, or abandon him. And instead of writing out all the expectations for their meeting, instead of holding them accountable to their inevitable sins, he threw out the whole ledger and said, ‘I love you no matter what.’”

The table grows remarkably quiet as Paul motions for the wine and the bread to be brought back to him at his end of the table. And he says, “Listen carefully. Because what I’m about to say will save your life.”

Christ our Lord invites to this his table…

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