If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

Even Us

Mark 8.34

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”

It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.

But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us. 

Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

To The End

Psalm 41.4-10

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

John 13.1, 12-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including Judas.

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

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

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

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

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

Infinite Mercy

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The hospital was eerily quiet as I made my late-night rounds.

The sound of my shoes echoed throughout the hallways as I peeked in on different patients, asking if anyone of them wanted “pastoral care.”

Most of them were asleep.

Those who were awake waved me away with their televisions remotes as they sifted through the early morning informercial marathons.

It felt, in that moment, like a rare opportunity to crash on the bed in the dim lit pastoral office and enjoy some blessed rest. But before I turned to head that direction, a message popped up on my beeper beckoning me to another part of the hospital.

She sat up when I entered the room, old enough to be my great-grandmother, and she gestured for me to come closer. I reached for a nearby chair but she patted on the bed. She explained that eyesight and hearing were such that she needed me to be as close as possible, so I obliged. 

She took my hand in hers and said, “Father, I need to confess my sins.”

“Well,” I began, “I’m not actually a priest, and neither am I ordained, I’m basically a glorified pastoral intern.”

She said, “God loves to work through people like you. Will you hear my confession?”

“I guess so.”

“I lied to the nursing staff this afternoon. They asked if I was comfortable and I said ‘Yes’ even though I feel terrible. They asked if I like the food here and I said ‘Yes’ even though I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs. And they asked if I needed anything and I said ‘No’ even though, honestly, I need a miracle.”

We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Aren’t you supposed to say something.”

“Yes,” I muttered, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

“Thank you,” she replied as I saw the worry drift away from her face, “I know God already forgives me, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone else say it.”

I then prepared to get up from sitting next to her on her bed when she tightened her grip around my hand and said, “Now its your turn.”

“My turn to do what?” I asked.

“To confess your sins to me.”

So I did.

Psalm 51 is read by the people of God to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. It is, as we call it in the church, one of the penitential psalms – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, Psalm 51 does not begin, as we might suspect, with a confession of sin. Rather, it begins with a request for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like a big deal – but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worthy confessing, that if the psalmist is to be helped (at all) then the sins must be taken away completely, that the psalmist cannot do this on their own, and that the psalmist can ask for forgiveness because the psalmist worships a merciful God.

And that is astonishing.

Let me put it this way. In so much of our lives it go like this: We do something wrong or we avoid doing something we know we should do. And then, for awhile, we stew over what happened, or didn’t happen. We know we should probably admit what we did but it’s terrifying. What if we wronged someone and when we tell them the truth they cut us out of their lives forever? Or we wrestle with it because we don’t want to admit that we’re the kind of person who could do such a thing. And then we either bite the bullet and confess, or we keep in in our heart of hearts as it seeps throughout our being and does far more damage and the initial indiscretion.

But the psalmist sees it different. 

The psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred. 

The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.  

The psalmist understands that God can redeem even the worst mistake.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, this is something to keep at the forefront of our minds – we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, while we were yet sinners God proved God’s love toward us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (who, by the way, happen to be everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross).

The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us. 

The challenge is whether or not we have the constitution to confess the condition of our condition.

Because even if we can summon the words, Lord have mercy upon me, most of us go around convincing ourselves that we’re, all things considered, pretty decent people.

After all, we’re tuning in to a midweek first day of lent service online!

Sure, we know we’re not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). We’re happy to get on Facebook and Twitter to call out the specks in other’s eyes all while ignoring the log in our own. 

That’s why Lent is both so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to turn back to the Lord who came to dwell among us – it is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the One who breathed life into us.

But Lent is also a time for honesty.

Honesty about who we are, how we have fallen short, and how in need of grace we really are.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, the disciple Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, the church, then don’t exist to show the world how wrong it is in its trespasses but to confess first that we are sinners in need of a Savior who can do more with us and for us than we could ever do on our own. 

Confession, what we’re doing tonight, is not just an apology, it’s not just a feeling bad about what we’ve done. It’s about agreeing with God about who we really are. 

We are dead in our sins. 

And we have no hope in the world of being anything else, except for the fact that God has come not to fix the fixable or teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

We can’t fix ourselves. But that’s actually Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The Kingdom is heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is thinking we need no part of forgiveness. Amen. 

The Complimented Community

1 Thessalonians 5.11 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentle As A Lamb

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.

Thanks for the advice Paul.

But, have you seen the world recently?

It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.

So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.

They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?

Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in! 

Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.

So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.

Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.

Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.

Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?

And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.

Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”

Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.

And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!

If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?

The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?

The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?

That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.

Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.

In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.

After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”

To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”

Again, there was silence. 

He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”

A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.

“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”

Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left. 

The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.

A few months later the school integrated without incident. 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.

To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought. 

And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus. 

Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends. 

But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.

To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.

Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. 

That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.

Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.

Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.

Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.

Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.

And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.

Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.

In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.

As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.

Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity. 

Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.

Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.

Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.

Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.

We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.

Something To Say

Philippians 1.21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. 

It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early fall. Families made their way from the parking lot to the church, children wore matching outfits, and the sanctuary windows were open to let in the cool air.

The preacher paced in his office, looking over his notes for the sermon entitled, “A Love That Forgives.” He was momentarily grateful that the children’s choir would be singing that morning and, no matter how his preaching landed, most people would be pleased to hear the little ones’ voices. 

The Sunday school hour arrived and the adults went to their side of the building while the children went to their own. All in attendance that morning examined their Bibles, gleaned from God’s Holy Word, all while also sharing the local community gossip.

Shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, a group of girls were giggling in the basement restroom as they changed into their choir robes. 

And that’s when the bomb exploded.

It shook the entire building and it propelled the little girls’ bodies through the air like rag dolls. A passing motorist was blown out of his car, and every single stained glass window in the building was destroyed save for one which displayed Jesus leading a group of young children.

It was Sunday September 15th, 1963. 57 years ago this week. 

4 little girls from were declared dead on the scene. Another 20 people were injured by the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church would never be the same.

Martin Luther King Jr. would later describe the event as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So wrote Paul to the Philippians from his jail cell. This is one of the greatest declarations in all of Paul’s letters, and perhaps in the entirety of scripture. It cuts right to the heart of this thing we call faith – life and death are both centered wholly in Christ.

Whether we live or die we are with Christ. 

In baptism we are deadened like Christ that we might be raised with Christ. 

This, for Paul, is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and he has laid it all on the line in order to obtain it. He writes with such conviction, while a convict, because he knows Christ and him crucified. His life was turned upside down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and he now knows, deep in his bones while resting behind bars, that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. 

Paul, to put a finer point on it, has been assaulted by grace of God. A violent and merciful grace that knows no bounds.

When Paul writes of joy to the Philippian church, a community struggling under the weight of the world and opposition from the wider community, he does so because he has been confronted with a hope he didn’t deserve. He persecuted the early church, derided those who believed in a risen Messiah, and then was offered a position in the evangelism department!

He went from town to town and city to city sharing the Good News with people who had nothing but bad news. Which is why Paul writes of being comfortable with his fate whatever it may be. He knows he belongs to God whether he lives or dies. 

And, knowing he doesn’t know what will happen next, he encourages the Philippians to rest in the knowledge that he cares for them deeply, just as God does. That regardless of outcome, God has already overcome the world.

Which is what leads him to the line that, if we’re heard this part of Philippians before, we might know the best: Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.

This solitary sentence, taken out of context, has been used on a great number of occasions to malign Christians for not being good enough. Pastors like me have stood in places like this telling people like you that you’re not living in a manner worthy of the gospel so its about time you started turning things around. 

Stop sinning.

Start repenting.

Pray harder.

Do more.

All that stuff.

And yet, Paul’s proclamation about living in a manner worthy of the Gospel is so much more subtle than all of that. 

What we read in English as “manner of life” comes from the Greek word POLITEUESTHE (from which we get polis and politics) and it carries political overtones. While, on the surface, it might seem like Paul just wants the Christians in Philippi to behave themselves, he’s actually contrasting one form of citizenship with another. 

Throughout the rest of the letter he will continue to hold these two different identities against one another and remind the church that the citizenship of the Christian community is of a higher order than that of Roman citizenship. 

Faith and politics have never been easy to sort out and there’s always been disagreement about how they relate to one another. 

For the Philippians, it was of crucial importance because everywhere they turned they were bombarded by the power of Rome whether it was through festivals, statues, calendars, coins, temples, and all sorts of other cultural phenomena. 

Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know the empire seems powerful and that there’s no way you can get away from it. And, perhaps there’s some truth to that. But as disciples of Jesus, if there is a conflict between your politics and your faith, your loyalty is to Christ and your heavenly citizenship its what’s most important.”

The faithful in Philippi, though they live on earth, are citizens of heaven. As inhabitants of a Roman military colony on the outskirts of the empire, they would inevitably come to find themselves at odds with the powers and principalities of the surrounding politics. 

For us today, any talk of politics from the pulpit is enough to make us squirm with discomfort. We have been told, even from infancy, that the US was founded upon a separation of church and state which means, on a practical level, that some of us don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit.

Some of us get enough politics Monday thru Saturday that we want a little reprieve here on Sunday morning.

And yet, Paul implores the community of faith in Philippi, and therefore us today, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. To, as the Greek hints, live as if we believe our truest citizenship is with God and not country.

Do this, Paul says, so that whether I’m able to join you or not, I will hear that you remain firm in one spirit striving side by side for the sake of the Good News.

While the members of 16th Street Baptist church were preparing for worship 57 years ago, four white men drove over to the church and planted sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church in order to rain down murder and destruction. 

All four of the men were members of the United Klans of America, an offshoot of the KKK, an organization that swears to uphold Christian morality!

It was according to their Christian convictions that they felt compelled to bomb and murder other Christians because of the color of their skin.

3 days after the bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the funeral for the 4 girls who were murdered. In it he said their deaths have something to say to all of us. “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politicians who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Paul says, “Live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel.”

Hearing about the bombing of a church nearly 60 years ago can feel like the distant past. It can feel like we’ve moved on from that stained part of our history. 

But things have largely stayed the same.

The last few months of protests have been a ringing reminder that things haven’t changed. And its not just the matters that dominate the news cycle, the unjust murders of black individuals at the hands of the police. 

It’s so much more.

It’s in every fabric of our lives from the way pregnant black women die in childbirth at a far higher rate than white women, to black students being punished with higher severity than white students for making the same mistakes, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison.

And yet, even with all of that, a study was published this week by the Barna Group which found that 30% of Christians, that is people who have attended some form of worship in the last month and claim to strongly prioritize their faith, say they are NOT motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice.

Someone, that’s an increase from 2019 when 17% said they were unmotivated.

One might imagine that the last few months of racially motivated moments in this country might change Christians’ perspectives on racial injustice, but when you look at white Christians, the old patterns hold true.  

And all of that is further problematized by the fact that more than a third of practicing Christians in the study cited religious leaders, clergy, as the most influential among a list of the type of leaders they are listening to about racial justice.

Contrary to how we, that is those of us who are white, might want things to go, the black church has never had the luxury of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke politically and faithfully when he implored those in attendance at the funeral for the four young girls to see that there would be work to do.

There is still work to do.

Live you life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well. 

Suffering for Christ will always raise questions about where our ultimate allegiances reside. As the Lord says, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Jesus and racism at the same time. We cannot serve God and white supremacy at the same time. 

The life of faith is complicated. 

It’s not just about receiving a list of to-do items and then heading out into the world – It’s about catching glimpses of how God has already overcome the world and living accordingly.

It’s not about feeling guilty for all the things we could’ve done – it’s about seeing that living in the light of grace means we cannot remain as we were.

It’s not about keeping our politics and our beliefs separate – it’s about recognizing how what we believe shapes how we behave.

Part of the complication is that we can’t live in a manner worthy of the Gospel – we will always do things we know we shouldn’t and we will all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But we can at least begin by admitting the sin we’re stuck in, and then asking God to help us out. Amen. 

On Breaking The Rules

Matthew 18.21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Jesus loved to speak in parables.

Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.

Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.

Summary: Don’t break the rules.

But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.

The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.

Because this king is a fool.

He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.

Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death. 

Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.

He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. 

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. 

If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.

Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness. 

Have Mercy On Us, O Lord

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is often far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. That is, until we remember that today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

soldier-peace-logo

Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated. 

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

img_3715

But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma. 

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

peace_war__wallpaper__by_jackth31-d55t58i

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies. 

Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and it feels as if we haven’t learned our lesson.

That is, for Christians, violence only ever begets more violence.

Nuclear War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. Nuclear War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. Nuclear War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. Nuclear War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. Nuclear War is our sinfulness manifest in atomic weapons. Nuclear War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.