Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 17.32-49, Psalm 9.9-20, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-41). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including articles of clothing, bad introductions, meta-narratives, Sunday School scriptures, Christological readings, true trust, Pauline suffering, textual juxtapositions, stilled storms, and open questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

We Know How The Story Ends

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 15.34-16.13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including handsomeness, green thumbs, passages for pastors, election and rejection, enthusiasm for the future, idolatry, confidence, human points of view, parable prejudices, and impossible possibilities. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Know How The Story Ends

The Insanity of the Gospel

Mark 3.20-35

And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 

This is a difficult passage.

We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.

So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.

Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”

Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.

“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!

And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.

This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.

And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.

Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.

Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.

Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”

No. They said he was out of his mind. 

But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.

Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life. 

That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.

Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.

And perhaps they had a point. 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”

That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster. 

Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”

That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”

Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…

Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.

No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there! 

Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.

You can only win by losing.

You can only receive by giving.

You can only live by dying.

Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?

Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.

And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!

Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”

And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?

His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.

The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?

But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset. 

It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you. 

But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.

If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.

The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be. 

It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.

It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.

Could there be any better news than that?

But wait, there’s more!

Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds. 

But what about for God?

God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.

Including us!

The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.

Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.

And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.

Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!

Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.

Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail. 

That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes. 

So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen. 

Unlimited Power!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 8.4-20, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35). Sara is the lead pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including beach things, political warnings, The Gap, identified hope, the faith we sing, evangelism, extending grace, the mandate of proclamation, and ecclesial hope. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Unlimited Power!

Unexpected

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb. 

Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.

And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It happened on a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.

And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.

He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

Easter.

It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!

And fear.

I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.

However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.

That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”

Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.

If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind. 

Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.

He is not here. He is Risen.

God is the One doing the things that get done. 

The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear. 

And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.

The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.

But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.

All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.

Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down. 

Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state. 

Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.

The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible. 

The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.

No wonder they were afraid. 

Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. 

Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.

But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.

Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.

And all it took were three words: He is risen!

I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now. 

Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.

The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.

No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen. 

Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt. 

Easter is about what God does for us.

In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.

And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.

Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.

Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.

If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.

The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death. It is a way out simply by remaining in. It is everything for nothing! Hallelujah. 

He is risen.

He is risen indeed. Amen. 

By Thine Own Rejected

Psalm 22.1-5

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Mark 15.25-39

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aa! You who would destroy the temple and built it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn  in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It was early in the morning when they crucified Jesus. 

The night before he was breaking bread with his friends and sharing wine. He was washing feet and talking about the command to love.

But then he was betrayed and one by one his disciples deserted him and denied him.

He went on trial before the powers and principalities, accused of crimes uncommitted, and ultimately sentenced to death.

He was paraded through the city to mocking crowds. His weakness was such that someone was commanded to help him carry his cross, his instrument of death, all the way to Golgotha.

And in the early morning light, they crucified him.

Nailed his hands and feet to the wood, and lifted him high for all eyes to see.

One by one they came to see this “King of the Jews” and the mocked him. 

“You said you would destroy the temple and build it in three days! Good luck doing all that from up there!”

“You’ve saved others, let’s see if you can save yourself.”

“Come down from that cross you soon-to-be-dead-king, and we will believe you.”

Even those who were themselves hanging on crosses next to him lifted up their own taunts.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land and it lasted for three hours. And then, around three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and he died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I have thought about those words for a long time.

I can remember sitting in a dimly lit sanctuary as a teenager hearing those words proclaimed from a rather portly-looking Jesus in a dramatic re-enactment.

I can remember coming across them in college and wondering why in the world Matthew and Mark decided to include them in their versions of the Gospel.

I have read all sorts of commentaries and listened to all sorts of sermons just on this one sentence and, frankly, not one of them have left me satisfied.

I have been unsatisfied with so many thoughts on these words because they so often try to avoid what it is that Jesus said – they try to avoid the words that we, for millennia, have proclaimed in faith.

When I was in seminary, we debated this verse in a class. My professor wanted us to explain to him why Jesus used these words as his last. And so we competed with one another – “Well, surely Jesus meant to quote the entirety of Psalm 22nd but died before he could finish.” “Naturally, Jesus intended his disciples to understand that he didn’t really mean what he said.” And on and on we went.

That is, until my professor slammed his hands on the podium and declared, “This is one of the most important verses in the Bible! You cannot explain it away. Look at the words! Jesus has taken on our sin and he is abandoned!”

There is no good way to talk about this text. This is not a passage that leaves us walking with our heads held high. This is the depth of our depravity held high for all eyes to see.

This is, to put it bluntly, our sin.

In order for us to come to grips with the Cross of Christ, we are called to consider the gravity of sin. And I don’t just mean the little choices we make every day that we shouldn’t, or the things we avoid doing that we should do. I mean them plus all of the horrific examples that you only need a moment to scroll through Twitter to find.

“None is righteous. No, not one.” St. Paul says.

And he’s right.

Had we been there in Jerusalem all those years ago, we, like the crowds, would’ve started the week with “Hosanna” and ended it with “Crucify!”

Even his most faithful disciples abandoned him in the end.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Why did he say it?

The moment of Jesus’ death is total hideousness. In that moment Jesus experienced separation for the Father for the first and only time.

Paul puts it this way: He became sin who knew known sin. 

The condemnation that we deserved was absorbed by Jesus in totality.

Consider the strange new world of the Bible – God looked upon us and our sin and what did God do? God did not remain above and far removed from our struggle. Instead, God chose to come right down into the muck and mire of our existence. God looked upon us and our sins and God entered into our very condition, birthed as a baby to a virgin in a manger.

That baby grew to proclaim the Good News for a world drowning in bad news. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He befriended the lonely. And when he entered the Holy City we nailed him to a cross.

And in so doing, God removed the condemnation we rightly deserved.

This will no doubt cause us to wince, or simply to dismiss it because, surely, we don’t deserve condemnation. Maybe someone else like those people we saw on TV or the people who voted for the other candidate or for the person who keeps insisting on posting such reprehensible things, but definitely not us.

But we, all of us, are sinners without a hope in the world unless (unless!) we have something that can save us.

Something had to be done about Sin otherwise we would be doomed.

Something had to be done to get us from where we were to where we could be.

And that something is actually a someone – his name is Jesus.

In the Cross, justice is served. But it is also an injustice. It is an injustice because Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world. 

All of our versions of justice in this life can certainly make things better and, at the very least, bring comfort to those wronged. But it will never be true justice because the specter of sin raises its ugly head over and over again.

But divine justice is altogether different. 

We do not deserve God’s love, and yet God’s reigning attribute is love for us.

There is victory that begins on the cross (and comes to fruition in the empty tomb) in which the old word of Sin and Death is destroyed. That is our proclamation. It is, to put it simply, the Good News.

And yet, we sit in the shadow of the cross.

It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries and hang them up in our living rooms and even tattoo them on our skin – not just as a symbol of our faith, but a reminder about what we did and what has been done for us.

We lift high the cross because the Gospels remind us over and over again the bitterest of ironies – the only person who can touch us and heal and forgives and make us whole is dead. Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there. Amen. 

A Hoped For Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope

Psalm Sunday

Psalm 118.20-25

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Mark 11.9-11

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 

Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.

Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.

Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…

Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”

And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing. 

To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.

Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.

Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable. 

Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.

Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.

Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!

All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.

And, to be clear, they are true.

There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.

There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.

There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.

Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.

Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.

The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.

Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.

Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace. 

The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.

You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.

It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:

At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives. 

We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it. 

The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.

And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.

Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!

Listen: 

Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city. 

The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.

On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”

Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.

That’s it.

What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem. 

A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.

At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”

You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.

But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.

By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.

But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.

After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?

Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?

Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?

People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.

On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection. 

Hosanna literally means “save us.”

Save us from what?

Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.

And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!

The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus. 

Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…

But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?

Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”

It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing. 

It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.

We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.

Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.

Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.

That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us. 

God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.

It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?

The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them. 

And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Faithful Failure

Psalm 118.20-24

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Mark 8.27-33

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

They were walking along the road when suddenly the Lord stopped.

The disciples look around as if a message is about to descend from the heavens or, at the very least, maybe some manna will come floating down. 

But instead, Jesus just stands there with a slightly furrowed brow.

Hey,” he begins, “let me ask ya’ll a question: Who do people say that I am?

“Well, I heard someone in the crowd yesterday whisper about you being the best thing to come out of Nazareth since on-call carpentry.”

“Yeah, and when we left your home synagogue, they kept calling you Mary and Joseph’s boy.”

“I’ve got one J, and you’re gonna love this because he’s your cousin, but some people are calling you John the Baptist.”

“I can top that – I was talking with one of the Pharisees last week and he kept referring to you as the prophet Elijah!”

Fine,” Jesus replies, “That’s all fine. But who do you say that I am?

Silence.

Until Peter, ever eager Peter, nonchalantly replies, “You’re the Messiah.

And that’s why you’re the rock!” Jesus high-fives the first called disciple, and they continue on their merry way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

However, right before walking into a large gathered crowd, Jesus pulls his followers in close in a huddle. “Hey, remember that stuff about me being the Messiah? Don’t tell anyone okay? They all have their own notions about what the Messiah is supposed to say and do, and if you go around telling them the truth, they’re going to try and fit me into their boxes which simply won’t do in the Kingdom. Understand? Good.” 

Then Jesus walks smack dab into the middle of the people and he begins teaching them the Gospel: “The Son of Man, that’s me, must undergo great suffering, I will be rejected by the people in power, the elders, chief priests, and even the scribes won’t go along with what I’ve got to offer. And then they’re gonna kill me, hang me up on a cross for everyone to see. But guess what? Three days later, I’m going to rise again!

And Peter, who shortly before was the only disciple to get the right answer, grabs his Lord by the arm and yanks him away from the crowds. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t die! You’re the Messiah! You are the Christ! You’re the one whose going to set everything right, put us back in charge, make Jerusalem great again and all that! You can’t be the Messiah and be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense.

But Jesus pulls his arm back from Peter, looks back out over the crowd and screams: “Get behind me Satan! You’ve got you mind stuck on earthly matters, but I’ve come to overcome the world!

Peter gets it right and Peter gets it wrong.

Along the road he provides a straight answer about Jesus’ identity (a welcome reprieve from all the hop-stepping we usually do when asked a question). But then later, when the Christ, the Messiah whom he just confessed, starts making ominous references to suffering and shame and even crucifixion, Peter gets it wrong.

Dead wrong.

And in the blink of an eye he goes from Peter the rock to Peter the block head, from the first called disciple to being called Satan.

I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. I love his eagerness and his faithfulness and I really love how much of a failure he is. Peter, in our passage from the strange new world of the Bible today, joins a long line of biblical failures:

Noah, the only good soul the Lord could find, delivers the survivors of the flood to dry land only to plant some grape vines and proceeds to get good and drunk.

Judah, son of Jacob, accidentally sleeps with his own daughter-in-law who pulled one over on his by dressing up as a harlot. And when Judah finds out that she got knocked up while a lady of the night, he orders her to be burned at the stake and he only relents when he discovers that he, himself, fathered the child in her.

And David? David rapes a woman and then has her husband murdered in order to cover up his transgression.

When you take in the great swath of characters from scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, they’re mostly a bunch of losers who keep messing up over and over again.

What wonderfully Good News!

Their failures of faith are in fact Good News because they help rid us of the suffocating notion that we have to be perfectly and squeakily clean in order to follow Jesus.

They remind us over and over again that only when we let go of the facade of our never-ending niceness and our righteous certainty and our perennial self-improvement projects, that the splendor of grace can hit us squarely in the chest.

Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to receive Christ’s mercy if we don’t think we need it.

The life of faith is one in which we come to grips with the condition of our condition only then to be bombarded with the Good News that God in Christ has transformed all things for a bunch of people undeserving!

Do you see? Peter here, in his failure, helps us see that our failure (whether big or small, intentional or unintentional) none of that excludes us from God.

Consider: Peter is called Satan, by Jesus! 

Can you imagine anything worse?

Called by the Lord while fishing, witness to miracles and healings and feedings and teachings, the confessor of the truth of Jesus’s identity, the rock upon which Jesus says he will building his church!

And then he gets it wrong.

But that’s not the end of his wrongness. 

On their final evening together Jesus tells Peter that before the morning Peter will deny knowing him. To which, of course, Peter scoffs. And yet, it’s true. Made all the worse by the fact that this first disciple joins the rest in abandoning the Lord to die on the cross. Alone.

Jesus quite literally does what he says he will do, the very things Peter can’t get on board with, and then three days later he rises to find his first disciple by the sea, shares some bread and broiled fish, and gives him a job to do.

In the church, we call this grace.

It is the unmerited, undeserved, gift of God in Christ Jesus.

It’s wild stuff.

Made all the more wild considering how often we squander the gift.

We, like Peter, build up these ideas for ourselves about who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for and those ideas, more often than not, crumble under our feet. We convince ourselves that Jesus is on our side (which, of course means Jesus is against the people we’re against) when in fact Jesus has not come to bring us more of the same, whatever it may be. 

Jesus has overcome the world and all of its machinations.

Let’s say we believe, as Peter did, that Jesus comes to overthrow the current reigning political proclivities. Sure, fine, but what happens when the people in power stay in power? Does that mean Jesus failed?

Jesus is not an instrument of either side of partisan politics. Jesus is God! And God has come to dwell among us, to rectify our wrongs, to save us from ourselves, and to turn the cosmos upside down. 

Put simply, our notions of Jesus are, more often than not, too limited.

We’re like Peter. Perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos, we’ve experienced something we can’t explain, we’ve had a taste of the holy food, and yet we still want Jesus to fit into whatever box we’ve construed in our minds. 

But Peter came to know the truth of Jesus in a way that we do well to remember whenever we can: Jesus was rejected.

And not just by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

Jesus was rejected by his own disciples!

Jesus was rejected by Peter!

The Elect Son of Man and Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.

Jesus is regaled by the crowds with their cries of “Hosanna” when he enters Jerusalem and, by the end of Holy Week, those same crowds lift up clenched fists with shouts of “Crucify!”

The Lord comes to deliver the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to, in the end, hang on the cross and becomes the very thing he came to deliver.

But this is the Good News: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

He has taken the cleanup of the cosmos entirely into his own hands, hands with holes in them. He does not hang from the cross until we confess our sins, he doesn’t wait in the grave until we get our lives together. He does what he does without us having to do anything – which makes the Gospel the most radical thing in history.

He does what he does for Peter knowing precisely that he would fail.

He does what he does for us knowing precisely that we will fail.

At the end of all things, the only thing we can really do is rest and trust in the knowledge that Jesus has come to do something for us that we couldn’t and wouldn’t do on our own.

Couldn’t, because none of us can atone for our sins, let alone for the sins of the world.

And wouldn’t, because Jesus insists on letting in all the riff riff that we would otherwise ignore.

The casket was set up by the altar and the family was in the narthex waiting for the funeral to begin. I, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in the parking lot, feeling sorry for the family because no one else showed up for the funeral.

There’s something terribly sad about a sparsely attended service for the dead.

But, frankly, I couldn’t blame people for not showing up. The man now dead, the one whose body was shut up in the coffin, was one of the meanest and most awful people I’d ever known. He belittled people, he was terribly racist, and he spoke his mind without caring at all about how much it could hurt. He would shout at people during church meetings, he would stick his finger into people’s faces during fellowship, and would loudly complain about everything even when people weren’t around to listen.

Two minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, while I was making my way across the parking lot to the narthex, cars started streaming in. 

One by one I watched people from the church community step out of the cars and across the parking lot, and with each passing one I replayed moments in my mind of how horrible the dead man had been to each of the people walking in. 

The last person to step across the threshold of the sanctuary was an older woman with whom the dead man had been particularly horrible. I motioned for her to come close and I whispered in her ear, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him!”

To which she replied, “Well preacher, didn’t you say last Sunday that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?” 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.

The Gospel On A Bumper Sticker

Mark 8.31

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribe, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

What’s the Good News?

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but how we answer that question can make all the difference in the world.

A friend of mine, also a pastor, is currently in the process of hiring an associate pastor to join him in his parish ministry. He looked through a handful of resumes and eventually reached out to interview some of the strongest candidates. In each conversation they discussed call stories, best church practices, and a handful of other topics, but my friend ended each interview with the same question, “What is the Good News?”

One would hope that clergy would know how to respond to such an inquiry, but the candidates struggled to articulate the faith they have committed their lives to.

Which makes me curious… how would you answer the question?

Let’s imagine someone has come to you with a tremendous opportunity – The person has agreed to pay for hundreds of bumper stickers to be passed out to all the members of the church in order to drum up some conversations in the community, but you have to come up with the slogan for the bumper sticker AND the slogan has to be the answer to the question: “What is the Good News?”

So, what’s your answer?

(Will Willimon once told me he could summarize the Gospel in seven words: “God refuses to be God without us”)