Asking The Right Quanswers

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 2.15-17, 21-22). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lighting stuff on fire, unpacking redemption, being comfortable with sin, Maggie Smith as the voice of God, shouting “glory!” in church, the gray area of sentimentality, baby baptism, and youth group initiations. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Asking The Right Quanswers

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Hats At The Dinner Table

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 1st Sunday After Christmas (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 22-26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA, and is part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including life after Christmas, conscripted youth groups, dressing for the job your parents want you to have, praise vs. gratitude, shout outs to DBB, the people who give church a bad name, SNL, education models, and the imagination of children. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hats At The Dinner Table

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Missing From The Manger

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this: Christmas Eve! 

No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic. 

The lights are hung in the sanctuary, the candles are burning, the poinsettias are blooming. 

And we are here! Some of us were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the very first time. Some of us are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything else. Some of us made a last minute decision and are still wondering if we made the right choice, and others were dragged here against our will!

There are some here tonight with more Christmases ahead than behind, young parents with children, kids with long wish lists. And of course there are some for whom there are only a few Christmases left, and with each passing season we feel more nostalgic about the past.

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world in Jesus Christ.

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I am beside myself.

It’s one of my grandmother’s favorite things to say. And, to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. I don’t even know if she knows what it means.

And yet she says it all the time.

It can be used in both exhilarating and terrifying ways. Like when she gets a card from someone in the mail with whom she has not conversed with in years. She will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

Or like when she turns on the news and learns of yet another senseless tragedy taking place somewhere in the world, she will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

I love my grandmother with every fiber of my being, and I will contend that she decorates for holidays better than anyone on the planet. 

Who else has 76 Easter bunnies that she hides in the house for her grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to discover every spring? 

But the greatest decoration of all, her pride and joy, is her manger scene.

Every year she sets aside the time to pull out the box with every individual character wrapped in their own paper to place them perfectly in their pre-ordained spot. The camels are so life-like they look as if they could spit on the bureau where they are situated during December. The magi are so majestic I am convinced that if you opened up their tiny gift boxes you would indeed discover gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The detail in the faces of Mary and Joseph are so incredible that you can see both their excitement and their terror about the new baby boy in their lives.

But one year, when the whole family gathered at her house, she greeted us at the front door with her preferred expression from both sides of the emotional spectrum: “I am beside myself!”

I had hoped that she was beside herself in joy that her entire family was waiting by the door, but I was wrong. No, she was beside herself because baby Jesus was missing – and you can’t have Christmas without baby Jesus.

The manger appeared as perfect as planned, except there, right in the middle was the tiny feeding trough without a Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

So we looked, and we looked, and we looked looked looked looked. We checked the box where the manger scene spent the other 11 months of the year, we checked under the bureau, we even found ourselves looking in the refrigerator.

But the longer we looked the more beside herself my grandmother became.

Jesus was indeed missing.

Only later, having gone through every sock drawer, and basement box, and even the trash, did we find him.

When my grandmother set up the manger that year, she put the trough in upside down. It looked like it was empty, when in fact if you looked close enough you could see baby Jesus’ little hands and feet sticking out of the bottom, crushed under the weight of his make-shift crib, and all we had to do was flip it around.

Jesus was there the entire time.

These days the season of Christmas is filled with lots of stuff. And rather than bemoaning the commercialization and the commodification of the holiday, we can just focus on the church herself. We’ve got all sorts of decorations, we’ve got some of the best songs from the hymnal, we will even end this service under the beauty of candlelight. 

But contrary to what we see or even hear this time of year, the biblical story itself is strikingly simple, brief, and straightforward.

Jesus’ birth barely gets one verse.

According to Luke all of the clutter that might distract people like us from the profound truth of the incarnation of God in the flesh is pushed to the side. 

There are no magi in the manger, we don’t even hear about any animals nuzzled in close for warmth.

It’s just Mary, Joseph, and a baby.

However, Luke does share with us this incredibly powerful moment where the heavenly host proclaims the arrival of someone and something new to the shepherds out in the fields.

It would be one thing to expect the divine declaration about the in-breaking of the kingdom arriving in front of the emperor back in Rome, or even in the governor’s palace in Jerusalem. 

But God does something incredibly different and contrary to the systems and expectations of the world. 

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While people even today focus on the people and the places of worldly power, Luke draws our attention toward the margins.

There’s a reason the shepherds lived out in the fields – it wasn’t just the place where their livestock lived, but also because they were seen as a sub-class, not fit to even be in the cities, towns, and villages.

And that’s where the glory of the Lord shined the brightest! 

This is the sign for you – you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger – he is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Most of us have heard this story enough time that the weight of that particular proclamation no longer carries the weight it once did. The angel of the Lord announces the triumphant entry of God into the world to the least likely people – and even more outrageous is the fact that God chooses to enter through Jesus. 

How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?

Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the things that have influence over our lives.

Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.

Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. 

We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.

But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped.

God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one often missing from the manger scenes of our lives, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.

Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.

The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God, and no matter whether or not we think Jesus is missing, he is there, he is here, and he always will be. Amen. 

Fruit Of The Womb

Luke 1.39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

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Mary was the first to carry the gospel. 

Our choir was singing those words with a particular gusto because the truth of that statement is a profound one. In Protestant circles Mary tends to be overlooked and is relegated to the side of the Advent/Christmas stories. Sure, she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer, but she was just a vessel right?

Wrong.

No. Mary is much much much more than a vessel and her role in the salvation of the world is one worthy of our time and attention.

She is a young and engaged version with the angel Gabriel shows up with supposedly good news. Imagine having to tell your fiancé that you were now pregnant with the Son of God!

And yet her faithfulness in the midst of something that appears terrible is bewildering. 

Let it be with me according to thy will…

Harmonizing with God’s purposes in the world is no easy endeavor, and in Mary’s case it sends her to relatives’ house, Elizabeth and Zechariah. 

Now, remember, this is a time before Facebook and viral pregnancy announcements, there was no gender reveal party or even an opportunity for a baby shower. Mary merely enters the house, and John the soon-to-be Baptist leaps inside his mother, Elizabeth’s, womb.

I’ve been playing the drums for a very long time and I’ve taken as many opportunities as I could to play with a variety of groups in a variety of places. I’ve played in jazz combos at bars, I’ve classical music in benefit concerts, and I’ve played jam-band music in more garages than I can count.

But my first love of drums came in worship music. I played for a contemporary Christian worship band nearly every Sunday from the time I was 16 until I was 25. And I loved it.

I loved practicing with a group during the week, I loved bonding over music, and I loved providing the rhythm for the praising of God during worship. And the people I’ve played with other the years are some of my very favorite people.

While I was living in North Carolina I practiced with a group every Tuesday night, and we would play for a worship service every Sunday evening. We would always wait until everyone arrived for practice and then we would circle up to pray before we did anything else. It became an important habit that shaped how we practiced such that we always remember for whom we were playing.

On one such night, we went around the circle sharing our concerns, when our leader, the pregnant pianist, suddenly departed for the bathroom and left us standing there holding hands.

We patiently waited for her to return until we heard her scream in the bathroom, and the girls from the band immediately ran to check on her.

Later, we found out that she was spotting and assumed that she lost the baby. The terror in her voice has haunted me ever since.

She went to the doctor the following day and, miraculously, she learned that the baby was okay. But she didn’t feel him kicking or moving around.

The doctor, the trained professional, had told her everything she could’ve possibly hoped to hear, but because of her experience, it didn’t feel real. She had to make it through day after day in that horrible tension of being told something that didn’t seem true.

Until Sunday, when she had to sit at the piano and sing to the Lord.

I can remember that Sunday evening, sitting behind the drums, playing away, and looking over at her as she stared off into the distance. She was there, but not really there. She was playing all the right notes, and singing all the right words, but her heart wasn’t into it.

But we kept playing anyway.

And then, in a way that is difficult to describe, it felt like the Holy Spirit blew through the room as I looked over at her in the middle of a song, and she was crying with a giant smile on her face. The tears were falling on the keys and she was singing in a way that none of us had ever experienced – it felt like the heavenly hosts were lifting her voice up to praise.

As soon as the song ended she looked back over her shoulder at the band and she said, “The baby started kicking along to the song, he was leaping in my womb.”

The jumping of John in his mother’s womb was enough to get Mary singing a song that Christians like us have been proclaiming and declaring for centuries. “My soul magnifies the Lord!” The Spirit moved in and through her to sing from the depth of her being that God was doing a new thing. That God refused to leave God’s people. That God would do whatever it took to rectify this world.

And so, what else can we do, but magnify the Lord with our songs? 

Monsters At The Manger

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have a bonus episode for Christmas Eve. In it I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the Nativity of the Lord [C]: Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, and Luke 2.1-20. Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and Jason is the senior pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including some enneagram bashing, Methodists with the BCP, the highs and lows of worship on Christmas Eve, the peril of just retelling the story, the importance of time and place, the eschaton in the manger, the all-ness of salvation, and God’s great “nevertheless.” If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Monsters At The Manger

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Impossible Possibility

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Scott Jones about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent (Micah 5.2-5a, Psalm 80.1-7, Hebrews 10.5-10, Luke 1.39-55). Scott is the host of my rival lectionary podcast Synaxis. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Netflix as the cost of empire, the young Karl Barth, little towns, Caspian and the Narnians, the peace of Christ, rectification vs. forgiveness, God’s anger, looking like an idiot int he pulpit, church marquees, and the gratuitous nature of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Impossible Possibility

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Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal

Luke 3.7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 

For 16 days in a row, my 2 year old son has scarfed down his food at the breakfast table with reckless abandon. Cheerios and yogurt and eggs and bread have flown from plate to mouth and to the wall and to the floor like the Tasmanian devil himself was starving. And with the final mouthful he will triumphantly declare, “I’m done!”

And then he’ll stare at the pantry with gleeful expectation.

We will, of course, reorient his demeanor and disposition to the Christmas tree advent calendar where he practices counting his numbers in order to pick a magnetic ornament to hang as we get closer to Christmas Eve, but all he really wants is The Incredibles themed chocolate Advent calendar we have hidden in the pantry.

He will sit there with his fingers twittering like a mad scientist and then his eyes will dart all across the thin cardboard box until he finds the right number and he will promptly scarf down the terrible tasting piece of chocolate all while grinning from ear to ear.

Happy Advent.

And, I’ll admit, there is something in me that just wells up with all kinds of fatherly and joyful feelings when I see the daily practice. Behind the frenetic eating patterns, and the impatience to ingest sugar at 7 in the morning, there is an anticipating, a waiting, for what is yet to come.

At least, that’s how I felt until I read something this week. 

Fleming Rutledge is, without a doubt, one of my favorite theologians and preachers. As a preacher, her sermons are the kind that make me feel like I’m terrible at what I do. 

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Nevertheless, I was reading through a collection of her old Advent sermons this week and I came across one on the same text that we just read. And this is how she begins the sermon: “I’ve always wanted to design an Advent calendar. You would open up one of those cute little windows and there would be John the Baptist glaring at you saying, “You brood of vipers!”

Imagine a wildly bedraggled man, smelling up to high heaven, clothed in camel’s hair, with honey stuck in his beard, jumping out at you from behind one of your favorite Christmas decorations, only to shout, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!”

Happy Advent.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “John the Baptist? Again?! Didn’t we have to hear about this guy last week?”

And you’d be right. John the Baptist, the crazy prophet is back again, but this time he’s not mincing his words. You brood of vipers!

In Advent, there are plenty of other people from the Bible we might like to hear from. The angel Gabriel, or Mary, or even Joseph (though he doesn’t say much). But John is the central person of this season of being in the in between. He is the one who stands with one foot in each of the ages. He rests between how things are and how they ought to be. 

He is the last and the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. With every new prophet the declarations about the coming Messiah increase until they reach their electrifying zenith in John who says the waiting is over!

And how does he begin his message? What are the first recorded words we have in scripture from John the Baptist? He belittles the crowds who have gathered and he exhorts them with a to do list.

I’ve said this a lot already, but Advent is a really strange time in the life of the church. It is quite a challenge to place our theological fingers on the pulse of what this season is and what it means for people like you and me.

I can’t tell you the number of churches who are spending this Advent season doing a series like “How To Find Jesus In The Peanuts” (as in Charlie Brown), or “Christmas Through The Movies” in which a church will play clips on a Sunday morning and then a preacher will exegete what the people have seen, or even something like “The Best Present Is Presence.”

Those types of things draw forth these deep waves of warmth regarding the season and the are the theological version of sitting by a cozy fire with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

And, for as interesting and exciting as they might be, like a child devouring the daily chocolate piece, they don’t really have a lot to do with Advent. 

The readings we encounter in church at this time of year don’t leave us dreaming of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads, or feeling fuzzy and familiar fantasies… John the Baptist just called us a brood of vipers!

I think it would shock those from the early church to see the cutesy versions of the angels, and the mangers, and the virgin Marys we use to decorate our homes. I think they would be baffled by the sheer number of lights and inflatable cartoon characters we put up in our yards during the coldest part of the year. Which, to be clear, I love those things about Christmas. I love driving around to look at lights and taking the time to go through every member of a manger scene.

But we’ve got to admit that our Advent and Christmas observances are pretty watered-down and sanitized. No one wants to put up an angry John the Baptist inflatable or ornament in their tree.

And yet Christmas, what we are preparing for right now, is the stark and frightening and profound transformation of the world. It is surely worthy of shouting “joy to the world” but God refuses to leave the world the way that it is.

God will redeem God’s people, because we are in need of redemption!

The Good News of this season of waiting and putting our feet in two different places isn’t just that Jesus arrives, but that Jesus’s arrival changes people like you and me.

Back to Fleming Rutledge, she says Advent forces us to look at the dark sides of ourselves.

Now, I don’t need to take the time to regale you with stories about the brokenness of the world. All of us here know how messed up things are. No matter how many sentimental decorations we have, or how many gallons of eggnog we’ve consumed, or how many carols we’ve belted out at the top of our lungs, we know that things really are as bad as they seem, and we are not innocent.

We, brood of vipers.

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John sounds pretty judgmental. And we don’t like judgmental people. He spends the majority of his proclamation exhorting the people to do this, that, and the other and it is just plain exhausting: Give your coats away, repent for your sins, don’t extort people.

Doesn’t John know that we already have too much to do at this time of year?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t like being called a viper, or a filthy animal. 

I don’t like feeling judged.

But here’s the rub: those of us who don’t like hearing about judgment in church are usually those ones who have reason to fear being judged. Or, to put it another way, we who protest the judgmental behavior of others usually suffer from that same disposition without really realizing it.

Advent is a time where all that has been, at that is, and all that will be is made known to God. It is the time that all of who we are is opened up to the divine: our inner thoughts, our knee-jerk reactions, our biases, our prejudices, our everything. We are laid bare and judgment is coming.

There is a new exhibit in DC at the Bible Museum that features a very interesting bound collection of scripture. The so-called “Slave Bible” was printed by the Missionary Society For the Conversion of Negro Slaves in 1808. Though labeled “Holy” on the cover, it is anything but; in order for Christian missionaries to convert enslaved African peoples to Christianity they created a bible but they removed any verse that had any references to freedom, equality, and resistance.

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In the end the Slave Bible is missing 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament.

And Christians, that’s people like us, used that particular book to keep particular people in bondage. 

What were we justing singing? Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…

All has, is, and will be made known to God. The final reckoning is going to take place. That’s what John the Baptist is yelling about – the ax is lying at the roots of the tree!

But we’re not quite there yet. And, strangely, something has already taken place. The Judge of all things is arriving and has arrived.

His name is Jesus.

So take a moment and think, if you can stand it, about your own sins and secrets; not the sins and secrets of others, the Christians who have come before us. Think about the dark side of yourself. 

In Advent we are bombarded with the notion that one day all of us will bring those very secrets before the throne of God and the great Judge will see us for who we really are.

But here’s the craziness of the gospel: the Judge is not like what we so often fear. Our great Judge is filled with compassion and comes to us with wounds in his hands and feet.

This is a paradox befitting the faith: the judgment we hear from the lips of John has already happened. It has taken place in the very body of the Judge.

Jesus, the Judge who is to come, has already given himself to be judged in our place.

Vipers, crucifixion, judgment… It is strange to hear these words in Advent while we’d rather consider Frosty, and Rudolph, and the one who has a belly like a bowl full of jelly. But it is an even stranger thing to realize that Advent and the Cross are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

If Advent is the time to contemplate the dark side of ourselves then this season sheds light on the truth that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross. We really are the unrighteous, the vipers, for whom the Son of Man was hung on a tree.

This is our Jesus; bloody and bedraggled. This is the One for whom we wait this time of year. And that’s why John the Baptist is the central figure in Advent. 

He reminds us that we were unworthy but Jesus counted us worthy. 

He reminds us that we deserved judgment but in Jesus we found mercy. 

He reminds us that we were slaves to sin and death, but that Jesus brought us to righteousness and life.

Hear the Good News! Jesus’ arrival both from the womb and from the tomb means that he will not let us remain as we are. He is the judged Judge who stands in our place. He is, in himself, the Good News. 

So, Happy Advent Ya Filthy Animals. Amen.