There’s a lot of good music to listen to this time of year both inside, and outside, the church. When the congregation belts out O Come, O Come, Emmanuel it brings tears to my eyes, just as Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” can make me extra nostalgic for Christmases from the past.
But for as many good songs as there are this time of year, there are also some awful songs as well. And perhaps none are worse than “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” (If that song is your absolute favorite, then I apologize for the rest of this)
What we worship and celebrate during Advent is the antithesis of what that song conveys. Santa Claus may be watching your each and every move in order to reward you (or punish you) on Christmas, but Jesus arrives regardless of whether we’re on the naughty list or the nice list. Though, spoiler warning, we’re all on the naughty list, which is why Jesus is born into the world in the first place! We need all the help we can get!
And, thankfully, as Isaiah reminds us, we remain loved by God even when we knowingly choose to do the things we know we shouldn’t. In other words, the real gift of Christmas can never be taken away because Jesus Christ is coming to town!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 11.1-10, Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19, Romans 15.4-13, Matthew 3.1-12). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ASMR, lectionary cycles, spaghetti with maple syrup, The Muppets Christmas Carol, fear, the word of judgment, righteousness, ecclesial harmony, the magic of music, apple trees, the central advent character, and prophetic insanity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stumped
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for All Saints’ Sunday [C] (Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1.11-23, Luke 6.20-31). Mikang is the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper pronunciation, perseverance, communal reading, saintliness, the difference Christ makes, directions for singing, courage, blessings and woes, sermon introductions, and Kingdom work. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Praying Our Goodbyes
Week after week the people called church get together for worship.
God gathers the scattered flock into one place where we share signs of peace with whomever God drags through the door. God proclaims God’s Word to the gathered with scriptures, and prayers, and sermons. The gathered respond to God with shared sacraments. And God sends forth the gathered back into the world shaped and nurtured by the Word.
For the well seasoned weekly worship can feel normal. But to those outside the church, what we do as a church is very strange.
To the world we are a bunch of people who sing unpopular songs, we read from an old and dusty book, we listen to someone offer remarks about the book that may, or may not, interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions or bread and juice.
Worship is strange and yet worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.
We are changed through a particularly powerful prayer that expresses thoughts/feelings/hopes/dreams/desires that we did not even know we had. We are changed through a handful of sentences in a sermon that proclaim our forgiveness and we actually feel our hearts strangely warmed. We are changed through water and bread and cup as God’s grace is communicated to us physically and tangibly.
And sometimes we are even changed in spite of worship!
For instance, C.S. Lewis came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letter during what he described as “one very boring sermon.” And I myself fell in love with the beauty of the Bible as a child because whenever I grew disinterested in whatever the preacher was talking about on a Sunday morning, I reached for the old book in the pew ahead of me and jumped into the strange new world of scripture.
Worship, week after week, gives us Jesus and we can’t help ourselves from making a joyful noise in return.
On Sunday, we praised God with the song “Great Are You Lord.” I’m not sure whether it was the ukulele, or the arrangement, or the lyrics, or all of them combined, but it knocked me hard in the chest. When those musical moments happen in worship, I know that we are in the presence of God whose Spirit is guiding, shaping, and leading us in the ways that lead to life. It is my hope and prayer that everyone feels compelled to make a joyful noise every single Sunday, but if not I am grateful I got to experience it on Sunday.
And so I conclude with the words from the song, and if you would like to watch/hear it you can do so here: (First Light Worship [the song starts at the 14:41 mark]).
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the unexpected Gospel, Holes, sacrifices, Fleming Rutledge, relationships, LCD Soundsystem, singing our prayers, God’s loquaciousness, judgment, eschatological hope, Dogmatics In Outline, Sunday clothes, and preparation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: One Of Us
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
“Were you crying during the first hymn?”
She asked me with a raised eyebrow out on the front lawn two weeks ago.
We worshiped the Lord with glory and splendor. The lilies surrounded the altar, the pews were packed, Easter! And then a stranger walked up and wanted to know whether or not I cried.
The truth? I did cry. In fact, I cried a lot. So much so I had to take my glasses off for fear that the tears would smudge my lenses and I wouldn’t be able to read the sermon.
But I couldn’t tell from her tone what she was trying to get at with her question. Had I been too emotional for her liking? Was she embarrassed to see such a handsome pastor blubbering up at the front?
I smiled and considered how I might respond. And then she interjected with a whisper, “It’s okay, I did too.”
John the Revelator sees a vision, and what a vision it is. Myriads of thousands, singing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!”
John shares his sights with a dispirited and anxiety ridden church. Easter has come and gone. The tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, but what happens next? The people called church run afoul of the powers and the principalities because they now know where real power can be found. They are persecuted, forsaken, punished.
And what does God have to say and show to the people called church?
A song that spreads wider and wider until the entirety of the cosmos sings praise to the One who is, who was, and who is to come.
Most of Revelation is music. As a book it is quoted among our hymnody and liturgy more than any other part of scripture. And for good reason. It is filled with such wild and wondrous images, it literally talks of music and singing over and over again.
And, if you spend enough time among the people called Methodist, you start to think in hymns/music.
Listen to this: My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought. My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
That’s the faith we sing, in one verse.
And so it has been since the beginning. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, the singing of songs, and the sharing of scripture.
We are the songs we sing.
The Gospel lection for today, the one that is meant to be paired with our text from Revelation, finds Jesus broiling up some fish along the sea with Peter. The infamous tripartite questioning, “Do you love me?”
Peter is questioned three times, just as Peter denied Jesus three times. Do you love me?
In some sense, it doesn’t matter how Peter answers because Jesus loves Peter whether or not the love is returned. Its grace, all of it. Jesus will remain steadfast whether Peter does or not. Whether we do or not.
Love, in the Christian context, means to be possessed by something else. We love only in the sense that we are beckoned, compelled, drawn to the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy to receiving power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.
It is a strange love.
Like the cross, the love of God is both a reminder of what God does and what we do to God.
That is, the cross is our salvation and is also a proclamation of our complicity in the death of Christ.
Love, therefore, is our freedom, and also a declaration about our unworthiness of that very freedom.
And yet God loves us anyway.
To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, doing exactly what we’re doing right now – gathering week after week with people we love, people who drive us crazy, and even people we hate because God in Christ calls us his friends.
To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, even when we’ve sung these songs ten thousand times and feasted on the bread and cup ten thousand more, that we are still overwhelmed by the God who is love and loves us.
Revelation, and in particular this bit in chapter 5, is all about worship. We come to the altar of God to be met by the One who makes a way where there is no way. We worship the only way we know how – we sing, we read, we preach, we offer, we receive. This is worship and it is who we are.
We come to this place in this way with the conviction that we are in the presence of God. Every week there is an air of excitement, or at least there should be, in which we gather here thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what God is going to do next?”
And yet, to those outside, what we do here is indeed very strange.
They see people singing unpopular songs, someone who reads from an old dusty book, someone else making remarks about the book that may or may not interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions of bread and juice.
Worship IS strange and worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.
A prayer is offered that strikes us to the center of our hearts and we know that we can never be what we once were. A sermon is delivered and we receive it as if it was written for me and me alone. And still yet other times its less clear what it is that happens, but we leave not the same as we arrived.
And sometimes we are changed in spite of worship.
C.S. came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letters during what he described as “one very boring sermon.”
I myself learned of the beauty of the Bible because I grew disinterested in parts of worship when I was a child, and I reached for the old book attached to the pew ahead of me to pass the time.
More than a few of you have shared stories about sermons you heard that brought you not to the throne of God, but to the realization that you needed to join a different church!
At its best, and I mean at its very best, worship reminds us, and begs us to realize, that we, even us, we are included in the myriads of the thousands in John’s vision. Worship tells us over and over again that there is nothing we can do for good or ill that can stop God from getting what God wants.
Worship gives us Jesus.
There’s a story of an old seminary professor who used to interview candidates for the ministry, and in all the interviews he did over the years he would always as the same question, “Why should I join your church?”
Candidates would wax lyrical about the value of community, and the professor would say, “I’m in AA and I have all the community support I need.”
Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. And the professor would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”
And then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. And the professor would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
For years and years he recruited for the seminary and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything specially about Jesus.
The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all the musical prodigies. We may have some of those gifts, to be sure, but if we’re serious about really being the church then we only have one thing to offer at all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We don’t have to have impeccable fellowship gatherings, or world transforming service opportunities, or even perfectly pitched singers because what we do here is already the difference that makes all the difference in the world. And that difference has a name: Jesus.
Here’s the shortest version of the longest story: Jesus the one whom we tried to push out of our world by hanging him on a cross, shall reign, and shall gather every living creature in, the last, least, lost, little, and dead, and even we ourselves will rejoice with the myriads. We will sup at the meal that goes on without end and we shall worship with song and voice.
Singing is who we are and what we do. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, the Angels, Jesus, Paul, all of them sing in the strange new world of the Bible.
John Wesley was transfigured by the singing chorus of a group of Moravians. His brother Charles wrote the songs that we, and a whole bunch of other churches, sing all the time.
And that is why we sing even now. We sing when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. We sing.
The last word in worship is “Amen.” Every living creature in heaven and earth sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And we all say, “Amen!”
Amen means “Yes.” It is our decisive declaration about who we are, what we are doing, and what is being done to us.
We respond to God’s great Amen with our own.
A few years ago I was in Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip with a group of youth from the church I was serving. We were tasked with helping out at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help in the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and generally enjoy one another’s company. And yet, when we arrived, we discovered that the Activity Center was, perhaps, misnamed.
The residents sat in abject silence day after day.
We pulled out the bingo cards, but we didn’t get any takers. The youth put together a workout routine to a Michael Jackson song, that receive not even a toe tap. No matter what we did, it was as if we weren’t even there.
I remember one of the employees saying, “Don’t worry about it. The residents are always like this.”
And then, one morning, one of the girls found a dusty hymnal in the corner, she flipped to a familiar hymn, and started humming the melody.
It was Amazing Grace.
Without giving it much thought, all of our youth surrounded her and started singing together:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.
All the eyes in the room, previously locked onto the walls and the floor, turned toward the center where the youth stood surrounding the hymnal.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.
The residents started perking up in their wheel chairs, and some of them started mouthing the words.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
Aides and employees started gathering in the doorways, witnessing this strange and wondrous sight, and more than a few of them joined in:
The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.
Everyone in the room was now singing or humming along, even residents who were labeled as non-communicative were making a joyful noise:
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.
With tears streaming and voices ringing, we all joined for the final verse:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright singing as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.
Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame, once opined in song about what it means to be part of the people called Methodists:
I’ve been going to church every Sunday morn,
Still don’t know if I’ve been reborn,
I’m sixty years old, is there something I’ve missed?
Or is it just that I’m Methodist?
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
The organ is soupy and the pastor is bland
Leave afterward and I shake his hand
Sometimes I’d like to shake my fist
That’s what it’s like to be Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
The sound system’s bad, there’s a buzz in the speaker,
The budget is busted, the collection is meager,
This great big debt load we been carryin’
Maybe we oughta be Unitarian.
People gossip about who did what,
The ladies circle is a pain in the butt.
Want to slap their face or at least their wrist,
But I can’t cause I’m a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
We’re not big on shows and dances,
Mixed drinks or big romances,
I’ve been hugged but never French kissed,
That’s because I’m a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
Everybody wants to sit in the back pews,
Want the sermon to reflect their views,
Some of these Christians, they are the rudest.
What do you say we try being Buddhist?
The same ten people always volunteer,
Half of them old, the others just weird,
How do we ever manage to persist?
We do it by being Methodist!
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
People offer to help then they don’t remember,
It can make you almost lose your temper,
Sit and steam and clench your fist,
But you can’t hit them, you’re a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
Everyone’s afraid of change.
Don’t like anything new or strange.
Or we get our underwear in a twist,
That’s how it is with a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
We were founded by John Wesley,
Not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley,
We’re not so hip but we persist,
We go on being Methodist.
What does it mean to be Methodist? We’re currently in the midst of a confirmation class at church in which we attempt to answer that very question each Sunday with and for our confirmands. Ask the average Methodist on a Sunday morning what it means to be Methodist and you might hear something about John Wesley, or holiness of heart and life, or prevenient grace. But you’re just as likely to hear about casseroles, singing hymns, and being the via media between Baptists and Catholics.
The longer I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church the more I am convinced that, like with marriage, you can only figure it out along the way. One day you’ll be singing a hymn between the pews and realize, “Oh yeah, I do believe this!” Or you’ll walk down to receive the bread and cup and be overwhelmed by what Christ did, does, and will do. Or you’ll sit in the silence of a prayer and receive an assurance that, to use Wesley’s words, “Christ has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Every denomination carries its own blues. We Methodists even sing about them at the start of every annual conference: “What troubles have we seen / What conflicts have we passed / Fightings without, and fears within / Since we assembled last.”
But that is only part of the song we sing. For it ends thusly:
But out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford,
And hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast
Of His redeeming power,
Which saves us to the uttermost,
Till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross
Till we the crown obtain;
And gladly reckon all things loss,
So we may Jesus gain.
Let us therefore boast and rejoice even in our blues, knowing that Jesus is the difference who makes all the difference.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including seminary salutations, campus ministries, silent retreats, the call of Saul, humbling humility, praying the psalms, divine anger, hand motions, nooma, the eschaton, choral singing, good worship, and texts for tweenagers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Trading My Sorrows
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas Eve) [C] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including weird Christian twitter, worship hopes, light and darkness, duel for the fire, the shadow of the Cross, for-giveness, church music, holy fear, the judged Judge, Karl Barth, the scope of salvation, perfect patience, and the cost of Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dawn of Redeeming Grace
And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another.
I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.
Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.
The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.
The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.
But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.
That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.
Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?
Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond.
And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.
God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.
That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.
And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.
Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway.