Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Scott Jones about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8). Jason is the Executive Pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA and Scott is the host of the Give and Take Podcast. The conversation covers a range of topics including manscaping, Isaiah as Socialist, resuscitation vs. resurrection, how God isn’t white, the need to revisit our sin, and the beauty of the already but not yet. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

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Scott Jones

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Apocalypse

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Scott Jones about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 64.1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9, Mark 13.24-37). Jason is the Executive Pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA and Scott is the host of the Give and Take Podcast. The conversation covers a range of topics including clip-on bowties, looking for the next Advent, weak church confessions, singing in minor keys, Apple Watches, meditating on our deliverance, and kitten videos. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Have Yourself A Merry Little Apocalypse

Taylor Scot Jason

Practice Resurrection – Easter Sunrise Sermon

Mark 16.1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought 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.

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Man it feels good to say that word! In the church I serve, we have purposely avoided saying “Hallelujah” since before Ash Wednesday. No hymns, no prayers, no sermons contained the word. And now we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been holding in throughout Lent. Hallelujah! He is risen!

NT Wright is quite a famous theologian and he has said on numerous occasions that on Easter Christians should break out the champagne! But, we’re good United Methodists, so we’re stuck with Welsh’s Sparkling Grape Juice, plus it’s 6:30 in the morning and a bunch of us have other church services to go to after this!

But nevertheless, it’s time to pop some bottles and celebrate! I’ve passed out bottles to all the clergy so just go to the closest pastor to receive your cup. It’s time to shout out some Hallelujah and drink some Methodist champagne!

A Toast: To the God of Grace and Glory who broke forth from the tomb; Hallelujah!

Easter: What is this day all about? For centuries people like you and me have gathered like this to remember the first Easter. But, has Easter changed throughout the centuries?

We have a lady at St. John’s who, I believe, is keeping Hallmark in business. Whenever I visit people from our church community there is a better than good chance that I will see a card from Dianne on a refrigerator, or on a countertop, just to brighten someone’s day. And, wanting to be more like Dianne, I started looking through the greeting cards at Rite-Aid the other day in the section titled, “Easter.”

I flipped through a handful, looking for something appropriate, but then I couldn’t stop myself. And before I knew it I had gone through every single Easter card. They were all filled with nice words like “renewal” and “rebirth” and “revival.” They had colorful pictures of butterflies, lilies, and baby bunnies. But not one of them contained the right word: Resurrection.

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Easter is not the celebration of spring.

This is important! While we are bombarded with images and messages about spring being the season of rebirth and renewal, the resurrection is something entirely different.

I can assure you that the women who walked to the tomb that first Easter were not captivated by the birds singing in the air, or the new buds bursting from the trees. They, as Mark so eloquently puts it, were afraid.

But we are far removed from the strange new world of the bible, and instead we like to make Easter about the egg hunts, the bunny who comes like a thief in the night, and the rebirth of nature. Maybe then, we are actually just like the women who fled from the tomb; the message and power of the resurrection is such that we can barely bring ourselves to say anything about it at all.

I, or any of the fine preachers from Staunton, could stand before you this morning and talk all about the change of seasons, the wonder of the birds chirping as the sun rises, the call to a new life. But does any of that actually grab you? Does it terrify you? Does it fill you with such hope that you would stand against the tyranny of the Roman Empire?

Easter is not about spring. Easter is resurrection.

Resurrection is God’s penultimate Word to us, His creatures. And frankly, it should make us tremble and consider running in the other direction because recognizing this new truth and new reality means that we will, sooner or later, have to give up our dependence upon the things that the world tells us we need: beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, out loved ones, even our lives.

But since you’re here at the crack of dawn to worship the living God, you must surely get it already. You’re here because your lives have been transformed by the power of the resurrection and you can’t go back. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re like me and you’ve heard this story so many times before that you’ve become a little numb to the Good News of God bursting from the tomb. Perhaps we need to be shocked or afraid like the women who ran away. Maybe resurrection isn’t supposed to make us smile and grin. Perhaps resurrection is supposed to make us run away in bewilderment.

Resurrection changes everything.

Just shy of a year ago, my wife gave birth to our son Elijah. And at first it was terrifying. I’ll never forget pushing him in his little basinet down to the recovery room and Lindsey finally getting to rest after the draining ordeal of childbirth. My beautiful wife was sleeping soundly, and our beautiful baby boy was asleep at the foot of her bed. It was a profoundly holy moment. And then Elijah started choking.

At first I looked around for a nurse or a doctor to do something, and then remembered that we were all alone. So I got up, rushed to him, used a suction cup to clear his throat, and he promptly nuzzled into my neck.

Having a baby changed everything.

Eventually we made it home and started figuring out how to exist with another tiny little human being in the house. We got into a good rhythm. And, I decided to start reading to him every night.

He was barely a month old when I picked up my collection of the Chronicles of Narnia and began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Every night I would flip through the old and worn pages that called us into the strange new land of Narnia. And, of course, it meant nothing to him, but it meant everything to Lindsey and me.

We read the entire collection in just over a month and the very last paragraph of the very last book goes like this: And for us, this is the end of all stories… But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning chapter one of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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The end of Mark’s gospel, this wonderful bit about the women running away afraid, is no ending at all. It is a great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women were afraid because the resurrection was unlike anything this earth had ever known. They could not comprehend the sheer magnitude of God’s dynamic and reality-altering gift in his Son breaking free from the chains of death.

But their story, and our story, does not end with the written gospel. Their story, and our story, is resurrection. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is always unfinished. There is an unwritten page left for each of us to write, in which we record the many glorious, joyful, and even frightening things that God has done for and through us.

Easter, resurrection, isn’t perfect like a hallmark card. We cannot contain the inexplicability of God raising Jesus from the dead in pastel colors with a simple quote about renewal. It’s strange, and complicated, and scary.

For some of us Easter creates more questions than it provides answers. For the women at the tomb it was frightening and astonishing. For all of you it probably feels uncomfortable as we passed around out Methodist champagne with shouts of Hallelujahs while gathering in a place like this: a cemetery.

Easter can be downright terrifying.

But’s its not the end of the story. Jesus came alive so that we could come alive. The resurrection forces us to not experience Easter as just a day when the seasons change, but the very life-altering, earth shaking, cosmically confusing, moment of transformation of all things.

This, what we’re doing here, is our witness to the fact that we do not know what will happen next. We do not know when the bell will toll for us. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this frightens us.

But hear the Good News: resurrection is the beginning of a new story, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before. Jesus’ story, our story, has no end.

Hallelujah! Amen.

God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 

 

On the day of the funeral, everything felt too familiar. The pews were filling up with the same people who were here the week before, the same family was waiting in the narthex, and our organist was even playing some of the same music as people were walking in.

I stood right here in front of the gathered congregation and asked everyone to stand for the family. Leading the profession were two daughters who were about to bury their father after burying their mother the week before. Their grief and pain and anger were palpable as they slowly walking down the center aisle, and everyone watched them as they passed.

And we did what we do for a service of death and resurrection. We prayed. We opened up the hymnals and proclaimed God’s faithfulness through song. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

As we finished, I watched the pallbearers stand up and surround the coffin. With hands shaking in nervousness and fear they carried their friend’s body out of the church and put him in the hearse.

And we did what we do when travel to a cemetery. We got in our cars and turned on our hazard lights. We followed one another through the streets of Staunton. We watched cars slow down and pull over out of respect for what we were doing. We drove. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After arriving at the cemetery, I watched the same pallbearers carry the coffin to the grave over uncertain soil. With sweat perspiring on their foreheads they lowered their friend to the ground and stood beside the family.

And we did what we do by the graveside. We prayed. We listened. We placed dirt on the coffin. We said what we needed to say. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After the final “Amen” I waited by the grave with a few others, making sure the family was comforted. I overheard familiar and charming anecdotes about the man we just gathered to bury. I witnessed family members reach out to one another for the first time in many years. I saw a lot of tissues filled with tears wadded up in clenched fists.

And then I saw something I’ll never forget. A man, unknown to me, walked right over to one of the daughters devastated by the loss of both her parents. He placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

God won’t give you more than you can handle.

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I’m sure that all of us here have heard this statement, or some form of it, in our lives. It is part of that trite and cliché Christian-lingo that we use to fill uncomfortable silences when we don’t know what else to say. And it’s not true.

Let’s start with the beginning: God won’t give you… We’ve talked about it with every sermon of this series so far; God doesn’t give us our sufferings. God is not some sadist who delights in our trials and tribulations. God is not some architect of divine destruction. God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what terrible things to send for us to handle.

Can you imagine going to a devastated neighborhood in Chicago to families whose sons have been killed by gunfire and saying, “Don’t worry God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to the millions of people in this country who are terrified of losing their healthcare coverage in the next few months and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

God did not kill those families’ sons, God did not give that woman breast cancer, and God is not responsible for the arguments about whether or not to eradicate the Affordable Care Act.

Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.

The problem is that when we use trite and cliché words like the ones we are confronting this morning, we imply that God chooses to make people suffer.

Jesus, God incarnate, had been on the road for a while, going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, proclaiming the Good News, teaching about the kingdom of God, and healing those on the margins of society. Word about his ministry spread pretty vast, and he returned to Capernaum for a few days, perhaps to rest. But so many people knew where he was that they surrounded his house and Jesus spoke the Word to them.

Some friends heard about what was happening, so they went to their paralyzed friend and carried him on a mat to Jesus. When they could not bring him to the Messiah because of the crowd, they carried him to the roof, dug through the ceiling, and lowered their friend to Jesus. And when Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he looked at the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

What a strange and beautiful story. Friends with such profound faith were willing to carry their friend, and dig through a roof, just so he could encounter the living God.

I often wonder about the tradition of pallbearers at funerals. Did it start of out a practical necessity? Is there strong theological purpose behind it? Is it a unique Christian behavior?

But on the day I buried a husband after burying his wife the week before, the day I saw a man dismissively respond to the daughter’s suffering, I saw the connection between pallbearers, and the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.

When we cannot handle what’s happening in our lives, we need people who can carry us, and the ones we love, to Jesus.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy it feels like someone is sitting on our chest. We might give in to the temptation of an addiction and lose contact with the people we need most. We may fall into a pit of financial debt that feels impossible to climb out of.

If we are like most human beings, at some point we will absolutely face things that are more than we can handle.

So here’s a corrective. It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

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This acknowledges that trials and tribulation will occur in our lives, and it promises that when we go through the muck and grime of life, God will be present.

When we’re walking through hard times, whether they were given to us by the random chance of life, or they’re a result of our own brokenness, or they’re signs of our captivity to the powers and principalities, it’s okay and good to admit, “I can’t handle this by myself, and I need help.” There are times when we need a doctor, or a therapist to carry us. More often, we need family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in our church family to come alongside us to carry us through.

God does not give us more than we can handle. God gives us Jesus Christ so that we can handle what life gives us.

For a lot of people, what happened on Friday in Washington DC was more than they could handle. Whether it was the pent up frustration with the political rhetoric that overflowed over the last 18 months, or witnessing a billionaire place his hands on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, or experiencing the great swing of the pendulum from one political ideology to another, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with violent protests and destroyed shop windows and attacked the police. Others responded with peaceful demonstrations making sure their voices were not stomped out among all the shouting debauchery. There were the political talking heads offering their opinions about who was right and who was wrong. There were smug smiles and there were frightening frowns. The inauguration, for some, was more than they could handle.

For others, the last eight years has been more than they could handle. Whether it was the constant feeling like the country was slipping out of their fingers, or the realization that the American dream is not what it once was, or the rise of oppositional and divisive voices, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with protests and boycotts of particular institutions, others responded by focusing inwardly and praying for change, and still yet others waited patiently for a new direction. For eight years there were plenty of talking heads offering their unsolicited opinions about who was right and who was wrong. The last eight years, for some, was more than they could handle.

Some say the time has come for all of us to just get along. A couple weeks ago I even told you that we, as a church, should have a collective New Year’s resolution to be more kind.

Kindness and getting along are good and nice. But there are people around us, people in our lives, who need more than kindness and getting along. There are people desperately clinging to the hope of their healthcare coverage completely unsure of what it about to happen. There are people who are hopeless when confronting their joblessness and economic futures. There are people shaking and quaking about their faith and whether or not they are going to be forced to register themselves because they wear a particular piece of cloth on their heads. There are people who see police officers as enemies and not community protectors.

There are people in our community; there are people in our church, who have more than they can handle right now.

We need people, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, to carry others who have more than they can handle. We need people who can look us in the eye and tell us we have a problem. We need people who will call their friends every night just to get them through a profound period of loss. We need people like all the women who marched in solidarity all across the world yesterday. We need people with eyes wide open to the horrible suffering of the people around us so that it does not go on unnoticed. We need people who are unafraid of the consequences for questioning the status quo. Right now, we need people who are brave enough to carry us to Jesus. Amen.

 

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On The Death Penalty

Mark 10.26-27

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Luke 23.44-47

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with The Death Penalty.

 

 

He was sitting with his friends when the police rushed in. Everything moved in a blur while tables were overturned, bodies were thrown to the floor, and he was placed under arrest. The journey to jail and to the courthouse was strangely quiet, but he kept his head down and his mouth shut. Others came and went, he received strange and knowing looks, and he wondered if any of his friends were arrested as well.

When they dragged him in front of the judge, the courtroom was packed and people kept screaming from the back. The judge waited for everyone to calm down and the whole proceeding came down to one question, “Did you do it?” The man replied, “If I tell you what happened, you won’t believe me, and if I ask you a question, you won’t answer.” Again the judge asked, “Did you do it?” And the man replied, “You say that I did.”

In response, the judge smacked his gavel onto the wood and declared, “What further testimony to do we need? We’ve heard it ourselves from his own lips.” And with that, the man was condemned to death.

The courtroom erupted into celebration as the gathered people shouted “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” What made everything worse was the fact that the dead-man walking recognized some of the people who were shouting for his death, but nothing could stop the inevitable.

Time passed, and eventually he found himself walking to his own demise; walking down death row. With every footstep he thought about what had led him to this, he thought about his family and friends that had abandoned him at the end, he thought about how this would be the last time he’d feel the ground beneath his feet.

The executioners were ready to begin the moment he arrived. They took off his clothes, and laid him down. Only then did he notice that two other men were about to be executed as well. Their faces held grave expressions of fear, guilt, and sorrow. But just like with the man, they were on a path that had only one outcome- death.

It was about noon when everything started moving quickly, and the man noticed that it was strangely turning dark outside. They strapped him down until he could barely breathe and then they stood back and waited. With each moment he felt his life slipping away, his chest heaved for air that ceased to fill his lungs, his vision went blurry, and then he died.

His name was Jesus and he was executed by the state.

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Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life, and more often than not it comes down to this: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and we have it in the Old Testament in our Bibles.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and we still employ it for a number of reasons. To kill someone for committing a crime is the only way to guarantee they will never recommit the same crime. It works and functions as a deterrence to influence others to not commit the crime. It helps bring closure to a family who is grieving the loss of someone who was murdered. And it saves the state a lot of money from having to keep someone in prison year after year after year.

In the United States, there are roughly 3,000 people on death row right now, and the death penalty takes place primarily through lethal injections – a poison is injected into someone’s blood stream that brings a quick and painless death, but many states still let people choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. The state of Washington however, still uses a noose to kill those who have been convicted. Across the county at least 56% of Americans support the death penalty.

And the state of Virginia, where we live, has executed more prisoners than any other state.

So why are we talking about the Death Penalty in church? Why is this a controversy that we need to confront?

Because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people often sight to justify the death penalty can just as easily be argued from a different perspective. The death penalty often fails to work as a deterrence because in the south where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. The closure that families experience in the short-term is present, but in the long-term they tend to experience more guilt and depression in a response to another person’s death. It actually costs the state a lot more money to put someone to death because of the required appeals process and the amount of time and resources that it necessitates. And, this is a very important ‘and’, since 1976 about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.

But all of the statistics and the facts, all of the psychology and the economics, are dwarfed by the fact that Christians still support the death penalty, even when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

We Christians love our crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skin and we wear them around out necks, I even carry one over my shoulder all over Staunton every Good Friday. But we have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, then we’d be wearing nooses around our necks instead of crosses. If Jesus died 50 years ago, then we’d be bowing before an electric chair in the sanctuary instead of a cross. And if Jesus died today, then we’d hang up hypodermic needles in our living rooms instead of crosses.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injection of modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crime.

The fact that 1 in 9 death-row inmates have been exonerated should be enough to give us pause. The fact that the state has murdered innocent people just like Jesus was murdered should give the church reason to repent. But if that’s not enough, then maybe this is: With God nothing is impossible.

And I’ll admit, there are scriptures in the Old Testament that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Old Testament and the New Testament who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like to think about Moses’ encountering the burning bush, we like to imagine Moses leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

            We like to think about David approaching Goliath on the battlefield, we like to imagine him dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with his wife.

            We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground by God on the road to Damascus, we like to imagine him writing letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered countless Christians before his conversion.

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            With God nothing is impossible.

That’s the beginning and the end of theology, that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the drink, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging out our nooses? Why do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we keep strapping them down for a lethal injection? Why do we keep hanging people on crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. Mercy for an adulteress woman who was about to be stoned by the crowd, mercy for short tax collector who preyed on the poor, mercy for a criminal who hung on a cross right next to Jesus. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away without consequences, it doesn’t mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the justice system.

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing the same crime. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can continue to take place without disrupting our daily lives.

But people are being murdered for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To retaliate murder for murder will only ever beget more violence, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

God sent his son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, not with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice. God sent his son to walk among us in order that we might catch glimpses of the kingdom. God in Christ ministered to the last, the least, and the lost, people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row. And God sent his son to carry death on his back to the top of a hill to die, so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent true repentance and new life from taking place in those who have fallen prey to evil. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. Amen.

 

The Kingdom of Chaos

Mark 4.30-32

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

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Today marks the second part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

 

The stories that Jesus tells about the kingdom of God are down to earth, literally. The kingdom is not some esoteric arena in the great by-and-by, but as close as a wedding feast, or a fishing net, or even a mustard bush.

A mustard bush is a strange thing. It develops from the smallest of seeds and grows like a weed choking out everything else. It is the kind of plant that farmers fear. The seeds are so tiny that if they get caught up in a group of others being sowed in a field, it can destroy the planned crop and replace it with mustard bushes.

One of the main points of Jesus’ parables is the fact that they are common stories that nearly everyone can appreciate or picture. But are we, today, familiar with a mustard seed or a mustard bush? I went out on Wednesday to a couple local plant nurseries, and I went to a couple hardware stores, and I found nothing. Not one bag of mustard seeds. Not one single mustard plant.

For the first century Jews and Gentiles this parable was as familiar as could be. Jewish law made it illegal to plant a mustard seed in a garden because they knew it would grow and grow and eventually take over the entire space. But for us today, we only know the mustard we buy in grocery stories. So, perhaps we need a new parable. Maybe we need a new comparison to what the kingdom of God is like. One that still holds true to the reality of a mustard seed but also resonates with our understanding of the world.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like one of those computer viruses that we receive in an email attachment from our grandmother. At first it seems harmless “Click here to learn the secret to weight-loss” or “Click here to see a video of a monkey playing a piano” and then before we know what hit us it spreads and spreads through our entire computer corrupting every file before sending the same email out to everyone in our address book.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like the flu, we try to stop it from spreading by receiving flu shots and preventing people from visiting others in the hospital, but once it takes hold it spreads through everything we touch until it reaches the next person and the next person and the next person.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a video posted on the Internet of a black man being shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. At first we try to scroll past because we know it is too graphic, too awful, too real, but we can’t help ourselves from watching. The longer we watch the more people we think about that need to see the video, we start to think about how the whole world needs to see this injustice so that justice might rain down like water. So we send it out for everyone to see until something changes.

If Jesus showed up in church today and shared any of those parables with us, how would we respond? I’d tell him that he is crazy, that he has no idea how no idea how the church is supposed to work, and that his vision of the kingdom does not match with mine.

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is one that confuses and creates frustration precisely because our version of the kingdom is different than the kingdom inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

ST. PAUL, MN - JULY 07: A couple hold a sign protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the Governor's Mansion on July 7, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed the previous night by a police officer in Falcon Heights, MN. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The kingdom of God strikes in ways that we almost cannot see, and certainly not in ways that we can expect. Like an idea popping up in the mind, it refuses to be stifled and it begins to spread out through our conversations and our writing. Ideas like “war is wrong” or “homophobia is wrong” or “the indiscriminate killing of black men and women” is wrong. Those ideas spread like wildfire and at some point they cease to be ideas and instead transform into revolutions. The original thought tangles in the mind and heart of the revolution and people become so moved that they are willing to die so long as that original idea will continue to spread.

More often than not, we know what we want the kingdom of God to look like and we know what we want the church to look like. We want clear lines to be drawn so that we know who is in and who is out, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is black and what is white.

But then Jesus gives us this two-verse parable with the mustard seed – the tiniest symbol of how God is forever invading our ordinary and orderly sense of things. The mustard seed is there in plain sight but hidden by our ignorance. We overlook it in the fields, in the church, in our lives, and then it sprouts into the greatest of all the shrubs.

Since January of this year at least 123 black Americans have been shot and killed by police. This week saw a black man gunned down outside of a convenience store for selling CDs and a black man gunned down during a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight. The saddest part of these stories is that they have become part of our common vernacular and experience of black culture. For a time we can remember the names of the individuals killed, names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, but now the list has grown so long that the names begin to bleed together.

And how do we feel? Are we outraged? Or are we apathetic? Are we disgusted? Or are we disinterested? Are we on fire for change? Or do we want things to stay the same?

And the death of black men and women is a small fraction, or perhaps the mustard seed, of the larger picture of racial inequality in our country.

People of color make up about 30% of the total population in the U.S. but they account for 60% of those who are imprisoned. 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime. Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are nearly 20% longer than white offenders for the same crime.

In preschools across the country black students account for 18% of the total number enrolled but make up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions. Preschoolers! In elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, black students are expelled at 3 times the rate of white students.

And 11am on Sunday morning is still, without a doubt, the most segregated hour in the United States.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is planted it grows into the grandest and largest of all the shrubs and puts forth branches so that all the birds of the air can find rest in its shade.

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of America where people are still persecuted because of the pigmentation of their skin, where immigrants are treated as second-class citizens, where members of the LGBTQ community are murdered because of their identity; where police are attacked in retaliation for events in other parts of the country.

On Thursday evening, during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, five law enforcement officers were killed and six others were injured. Snipers were set up in strategic elevated areas and sent the downtown area into chaos as bullets continued to fly back and forth. It is unclear what the exact motives of the attack might be, though it is clear that it is somehow connected with the recent shootings of black men in other parts of the country.

Black men and women are shot and killed by the police. Black communities respond in rage and protest. Police are shot and killed by individuals whose anger manifested itself into violence and destruction.

What are we to do? Turn off the television because of the unending violence? Shrug off the waves of death because at least its not happening in Staunton? Fall to our knees in prayer that we might be transformed into a people of peace?

Today we grieve and mourn all the lives lost at the hands of the destructive power of death. We lift up our fists and rail against the prejudices that result in black persecution and police assassination. We demand answers from the Lord for why things like this continue to happen.

People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the power of a parable like the mustard seed; it strikes us as something true whenever we hear it. A detail will emerge that we’ve never thought about and we realize that Jesus is still speaking to us through the story. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus in the midst of our lives today. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

The kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, like a viral video, like a revolution, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and creates something new. Hidden in plain sight, like words of a prayer, the seeds of faith grow in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed by our invasive and surprising God.

Our lives should transformed by the mustard seed quality of the kingdom of God when it stretches and reaches into every part of our existence and challenges us to be better. Not to pass the buck on to someone else, not to become apathetic to the tragedies of our time, but to be caught up in a revolution of the heart.

The power of the parable of the mustard seed is in the tiniest of seeds leading to a radical change. The mustard seed germinates and stretches out to grab hold of everything in its path. Oh that today the Lord would plant that mustard seed in our hearts, that the kingdom of God might grow and dwell among us, reaching out to everyone in our midst, that we might all believe that black lives matter, that we might believe that violence will only ever beget more violence.

We need that mustard seed. We need it planted deep into the soil of our souls, we need it to be cultivated, and we need it to grow with reckless abandon. We need a revolution of the heart, here and everywhere. Amen.

Calming the (Political) Storm

Mark 4.35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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On Tuesday morning, Lindsey and I woke up early to hit the polls before work. We were expecting long lines so we made sure to plan for enough time and double check our voting location. When we arrived, we were both a little shocked to discover the limited number of participants but we walked into the building with excitement.

I went over to the table to receive instructions and eventually went over to the machine to cast my vote. Lindsey, however, was forced to reregister because of a filing error, so I stood off to the side and waited patiently.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into to a building and start shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

On that day, when the evening had come, Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side.” As the sun was setting in the distance, darkness was hovering over the waters, and Jesus suggested that it was time to go across the Sea of Galilee. And this was no simple journey; Jesus had been ministering to the Jews in the Jewish territory, but now he wanted his disciples to go across to the other side, to the gentiles.

This is probably Jesus’ first foray into dangerous territory, his first opportunity to proclaim a sense of inclusion that still mystifies most of us today.

And while they were out on the water, making the journey from their side to the other side, a great windstorm arose, smashing waves against the boat so hard that it was being swamped with water. But Jesus was asleep! So the disciples woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are going to die?

Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and there was a dead calm. He turned to his disciples and said, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

They were definitely afraid; afraid of the wind and the waves crashing against the boat, afraid about the journey to the other side, afraid for their very lives.

And notice that Jesus does not say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” There are plenty of things for Jesus’ disciples then, and now, to be afraid of: isolation, pain, illness, losing one’s job, money problems, failure, death. Instead, he asks, “Why are you afraid?”

            Why are you afraid for your lives when I’m here on the boat with you?

            Why are you afraid of rejection and failure when I’m here with you in life?

            Why are you afraid of death when you know that I rose from the grave?

What a fitting text for this political season in our lives. While many of us grow tired of the countless fights and arguments that break out on the news, while the chain of endless debates rattle with sound bite after sound bite, while people go to the polls to vote against someone rather than for someone, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid?”

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We are afraid. We are afraid of the wind and the waves that assail our fragile ships. We are afraid for our lives, our church, our cities, our politics, our country, our world. We fear disapproval, rejection, failure, meaninglessness, illness, death… We are held captive by the power of fear.

And perhaps our greatest fear is of anything that differs from us. We are so contented in life that we fear death. We are so rooted in our Republicanism that we fear Democrats, or we are so Liberal that we fear Conservatism. We are so constantly surrounded by white middle-class Christian America, that we fear anyone who is black, or Hispanic, or Muslim, or Atheist. We are so used to seeing the traditional family unit of a husband and wife with 2.5 children that we are afraid of anyone who is lesbian or gay.

And Jesus is the one telling us its time to go to the other side. Jesus is the one who knows, even better than us, that there is plenty to be afraid of, but those things do not have the final word.

What we fail to remember and realize, is that we were once the outsiders that Jesus welcomed in. We were the gentiles waiting on the other shore for an incredible Messiah to show up and graft us in. If it were not for the incredible inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry, none of us would be here in this place, none of us would have been blessed with grace, and none of us would have received the gift of the cross.

And now we face a time with other outsiders, people for whom many of us are afraid of, people who will rock our boats. And as we get closer, as the scales begin to fall from our eyes, as we begin to see others as brothers and sisters instead of enemies, that’s precisely when the storms start billowing in, playing toward our fears.

“If we start working with the Republicans, we will lose everything we once deemed sacred…”

“If we let another Democrat into the White House, God only knows what kind of terrible things will happen to us…”

“If we start changing what we do on Sunday mornings, the church will die…”

“If we start affirming their relationships, the traditional family will die…”

“If we start opening our borders, our country will die…”

Jesus knows best of all, that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion.

The call to not be afraid bookends the gospel. It is there at the beginning when the angel Gabriel shares the news of the coming Messiah with Mary, and it is there at the end when the disciples encountered the angels on the first Easter. Not because there are no fearsome things on the seas of our days, not because there are no storms, but rather, because God is with us.

That night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus brought peace in the midst of the storm. This kind of thing happens all the time when people are willing to look past their fear and remember that Jesus is in the boat with us.

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It may be at the polls while people are arguing about the fate of our country, it may be at General Conference when people are arguing about homosexual relationships, it may be in our own families when people are arguing about anything under the sun.

We will face strong winds and huge waves in the middle of a storm. Jesus wants us to remember that he will always be in the boat with us; that we can rely on his strength and mercy when ours runs out; that the prince of peace will always calm the waters.

On Wednesday night I had the youth of our church read the story of Jesus’ calming the storm. We discussed the types of storms that we have witnessed in our lives and then we started to talk about fear. I gave each of them a permanent marker and a plate with the instructions to write down their deepest and truest fears. I promised them that whatever they wrote was between them and God, but they also talked about fears they felt comfortable sharing…

“I’m afraid of death.”

“I’m afraid of our government.”

“I’m afraid of being alone.”

Then we went out into the back parking lot and we smashed the plates into tiny pieces. After we collected all of our broken fears, we started to glue them back together in the shape of the cross (you can see it right here).

Christ’s cross shatters our fears, it breaks down the moments that haunt us, and remind us over and over again that we are not alone. To wear a cross around our necks, to see one in the sanctuary, is a witness to the fact that the cross shatters our fears. The cross is a reminder that God is with us; with us in on the seas of life, with us in our most frightened moments, with us when we need him.

This part of the sanctuary is called the nave. The word comes from the Latin navis, which means “ship.” If you look up at the ceiling, it looks like the inside of a boat. In this place we are bombarded with images of the cross and the ship on the sea as a reminder of how God is with us.

Every week we gather here into this boat, with Christ as the captain, calming the wind and the waves of our fears.

Every week we hear scriptures, and hymns, and prayers that help to remind us who is our real hope and salvation while the world feels like it’s falling apart.

Every week we gather in the boat to remember that Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Don’t be afraid. Amen.