Are We Able?

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hands and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

“Love” has got to be one of the most overused and therefore underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. What was once reserved for the intimate connection between individuals, and for the divine, is now the word we use to describe any affection toward anything.

I tried to keep track this week of how many times I heard the word and I lost count rather quickly. I heard of the love of our fall weather, the love of a certain gritty Star Wars Disney + series, and even, I kid you not, the love of Taco Bell.

Even in the church, we drop the “l” word all the time. We talk about loving God and loving neighbor, we sing of the gift of love, we participate in missional work in the name of love.

To quote a popular movie from a season that is just around the corner, “Love actually is all around.”

And yet, if love is actually all around, what difference does it make?

Notably, according to the strange new world of the Bible, love is not found in affection, or hallmark cards, or Romantic Comedies. Instead, love is found in service.

I love the thunder brothers: James and John. Peter is often seen as our proxy in the New Testament, always rushing in and saying more than he knows, but the thunder brothers are the perfect paragons of pathetic performance.

Jesus teaches his disciples about the mysteries of the Gospel, he offers them miraculous food when they see nothing but scarcity, he even spells out the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can, and the thunder brothers still don’t get it.

They approach Jesus and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom of God.

They want power while God in the flesh has just told them, moments before, that glory comes in weakness. For the third time.

Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe, confronted with bad news, you know the whole “the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests, he will be condemned to death, and they will murder him” thing, maybe the thunder brothers would prefer to stay on the sunny side of things.

“Excuse us Jesus, it’s all nice to hear all about the Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over and you’re finally in charge? We have some ideas we’d like to share with you. We think we’d be good for positions in upper management. What do you think?”

And Jesus, ever the good rabbi, answers their question with his own:

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!

“Okay, okay, you don’t need to sing it. But let’s be sure we’re all on the same page. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, literally, pay attention as I say this one more time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to great, you have to be the least. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Got it?”

Are you able? Are we able?

It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, and no.

We are able to follow the Lord, but we do not know where following the Lord will take us.

The thunder brothers want glory, power, prestige. In short, they want what we all want. They want the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance.

But glory, real faithful glory, isn’t what we often imagine it to be. We might picture the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right colleges, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.

But this is how Jesus describes glory: service.

And Jesus serves the sinful who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons. You know, people like us.

Discipleship, which is just another word for following Jesus, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we really have no idea where we’re going, and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the ride.

Contrary to how we might imagine the faith, it is not made up of theological propositions or lists of righteous behaviors. The marks of the Christian can actually be summed up rather simply: Are we following Jesus or not?

And yet, the simplicity of that question betrays the magnitude of discipleship.

Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. In the end, discipleship is often nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the roads of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the knowledge that Jesus is leading the way.

Which means, oddly enough, we never really choose to be Christians.

Discipleship is something done to us.

I’ve never not been a Christian, I’ve only known this life. Credit to my parents, church has always been part of my reality. But even to those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by choice. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually finds ourselves in a place like this. 

That something is named Jesus Christ.

Jesus gathers people like us in on a journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own, and Jesus drags us places we might not have ever discovered on our own.

And, more often than not, service is the crucible of discipleship.

Put another way, following Jesus eventually brings us toward opportunities to serve, and to be served.

However, serving others, putting the needs of others before our own, doesn’t actually make us righteous. Service is not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. No amount of good works can make up for our lack of goodness. The only thing service does is rightly orders our disordered lives. 

Rich Mullins poignantly put it this way: “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect family and your perfect little house where you never encounter anyone with any problems. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.”

Jesus says to his disciples, then and now, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And Jesus spends his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Notice, Jesus rightly rebukes the thunder brothers and their request. Even after all the miracles and the parables and the public displays of religious affection, they still don’t get it. And yet, Jesus also makes them a promise in this moment! Jesus’ promises them, and all of us, that we need not live in fear, we need not worry about what tomorrow might bring, we need not even scheme to accrue as much power as possible. Jesus doesn’t promise protection, safety, or power. Jesus promises us the cross!

Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was not about power, or at least not about power as defined by the world. Again and again throughout the gospels we are bombarded by Jesus’ work of bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”

Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then Jesus takes us somewhere else. 

That journey might look like spending a week helping out with Vacation Bible School showing love and grace to kids who might not know what those words even mean. Or it might look like working hard in the kitchen week after week to make sure bellies are full here at the church and in the community, particularly for those who do not know what it feels like to have a full belly. Or it might look like serving in worship whether singing, or reading, or praying, helping others experience God’s profound mercy. Or it might look like contributing to the financial aspects of the church, making a way for ministries where there is no way.

Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved with mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some part of the journey we call discipleship. 

To love is to serve. To serve is to love.

And yet, at the same time, to receive love is to receive service.

This is often an under-discussed part of our faith. It’s all good and fine to talk about all the things we can do, all the differing ways we can serve the needs of our community, and so forth. It’s another thing entirely to put ourselves in the position of receiving service. Of mustering of the humility to recognize that we, ourselves, need help.

But we do. All of us. No matter how much we like to pretend we have it all figured out, the truth is we’re all making it up as we go and we can all use all the help we can get. 

Thankfully, God chooses to become weak in order to dwell among us, God chooses to serve a people undeserving, and God gives God’s life as a random for many, including us.

If, and when, we serve, it is only ever because God first served us.

Put another way: we love because God first loved us.

Discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do and more to receive. Which, in the end, it what makes it so much fun. Amen. 

Grace Is Unfair

Luke 18.9

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

There is a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He even tithes when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning. He is good and faithful.

And there’s another man, a legal crook, who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the rest up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can’t even keep track of where he keeps all of them.

They both show up for worship one day. The good and faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the crook and, meanwhile, the crook asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

The parable of the publican and the pharisee. Jesus tells this tale to his disciples and then mic-drops the ending: “I tell you, this man (the crook) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It’s all wrong, right? This parable runs against the grain of how we think it’s all supposed to work.

Put another way: Which of the two would we prefer to see sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning? How would we feel if the crook was part of our church? What would we do if he took a little money out of the offering plate or showed up with a new woman on his arm every Sunday?

This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with a resounding conclusion, Jesus tells the disciples and all of us that the whole game is unfair.

Grace is unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and yet, instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”

Do you see what that means?

It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the Publican can kick him out. The whole point of the parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good works and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation. 

In short, they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what Jesus came to do. 

The Startling Nature of Scripture

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Joel 2.23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18, Luke 18.9-14). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Gospel according to Paul (McCartney), restoration, patient prayers, honesty, reading backwards, scriptural sommeliers, the Gospel diet, agency, the crown of righteousness, and the most important parable. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Startling Nature of Scripture

Fools!

Luke 12.13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures from themselves but are not rich towards God.”

Someone interrupted Jesus one day, “Lord, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance.”

The man probably has just cause for his request, even though the conventions of the day dictated that the eldest son would receive the inheritance. But, don’t we agree it would be a good thing for Jesus to make everything fair?

Jesus replies, “Hey, what’s the deal? Who made me a judge over all you people?”

Apparently, Jesus has more important things to deal with than the incidental patching up of a intra-family dispute over finances.

But then Jesus does what Jesus does best – he tells a story.

There was a man who had it all. At first, he used the excess cash to fill his house with all sorts of trinkets and wares that served only one purpose: showing others how wealthy he was. It started with some paintings, until he ran out of wall space. Next he redid his wardrobe, until his closet was full. And then he bought an extra luxury car, until he realized there wasn’t enough room in the garage.

What was he to do?

And then the man had a vision! Why not tear it all down, and build an even bigger house to fit even more stuff inside?

So that’s what he did.

And it came to pass, after months of deconstruction and reconstruction, of differing architectural bids and various contractors, he looked at all he had and he said to himself, “You’ve done well old boy! Time to eat, drink, and be merry!”

Suddenly a booming voice from the heavens shatters all the new glass in the windows: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you spent your life obsessing over, whose will they be?”

Jesus sure could tell a story.

And yet, I don’t know if this story has “worked.”

And by “worked” I mean, I don’t know if we’ve changed all that much in response to this particular parable.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus talked about money and possessions more than any other subject. And for good reason: we’re just as obsessed with what we have now as we were back then. Even a couple hundred years ago John Wesley was addressing wealth with the early Methodists: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

There’s a great irony with Jesus’ parable of the rich fool: We all know that it’s true, and yet we live as if it isn’t.

It’s a bonafide fact that we can’t take anything with us when we die, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. ($10,000 caskets…)

Everything in the world, and even the church at times, runs on avarice. Extreme greed for wealth and material goods. It’s the lie we were fed as children, and it’s the lie that we give to our children. It’s reinforced with every magazine cover, every instagram post, and every commercial we encounter.

Happiness is yours, if you can afford it!

And it’s all one big lie.

The world will tell us over and over and over again that we are defined by our bank accounts, and the clothes we wear, and the cars we drive. But in the kingdom of God it’s through poverty, not wealth, that God saves us.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though fully God, did not regard divinity as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, being born in human likeness, and was obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Why does God do this? Because we need all the help we can get.

Whether we’re rich or poor or somewhere in between, all of us are sin-sin with our insatiable desire for more.

And not just more, but more, more more!

We clutch at all that is around us rather than opening our hands to ever being open to anything else.

We’d rather receive than give.

We lay awake at night worrying about one thing and one thing only: money.

And then Jesus has the nerve to tell us this parable! 

Notice: the man in Jesus’ story does with his avarice what we all do: We congratulate ourselves on all we have accomplished.

The wealthy man sees only himself: “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

He’s living in a monologue.

And yet, all of the things we have in this life, all of the things we think we’ve earned or deserved, every one of them is actually a gift. We are products of what is done for us more than by what we do for ourselves. 

Jesus sets up the man as the paradigm for everything we think is good, and right, and true in this life. He’s fiscally responsible after all. He’s earned his good fortune. And yet, the man is only a master of a life that is completely and radically out of his control – the rich man is nothing more than the captain of a ship that has been taking on water since it left the dock.

The man lives only for himself, talks only to himself, sees only himself, until the Lord knocks him to the ground for being a fool.

He is foolish because no matter how much he talks to himself, and congratulates himself, and rejoices in himself, he neglects to recognize that his crops, or his stock portfolio, or whatever the good thing is was always first a gift.

And gifts require givers.

The land that our food comes from, the institutions that give us the space and knowledge to grow, the families that provide our basic needs, the friends that support us in times of pain and grief, on and on and on.

And yet, we are far more possessed by what we think we possess. Our possessions possess us!

We keep acquiring more and more hoping we can control our lives or, at the very least, to make it appear like we have our lives together.

We spend most of our lives in pursuit of wealth, material and immaterial, only to come in the end to the greatest poverty of all: death.

Jesus’ parable ends with that frightening final note, one that lingers long after the Lord calls us fools: no matter how much we make, no matter how much we accumulate, we all die in the end.

John Ortberg tells this great story about how for years he and his grandmother played monopoly. She taught him the ins and the outs of the game, differing strategies, and she always always won. Until one day, after countless games, he finally beat her. And as he celebrated is victory, dancing across the living room, she said, “Don’t forget, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”

All the money, property, houses, hotels, they never really belonged to him. They were in the box before he started and they returned when he finished. 

A challenging aspect of Christianity is our profound willingness to stare death in the face. It’s why we have crosses in our sanctuaries. We know, better than most, that time is now fleeting the moments are passing, passing from you and from me. And when the bells tolls for us, what will happen to all our stuff?

And yet, again, the “our” in “our” stuff betrays the Christian understanding that all of it, the money, possessions, talents, they are not “ours.” They are given to us by God who trust us to be good stewards of the gifts we’re given.

This church is a product of your stewardship, and the stewardship of those who came before us. Our sanctuary windows are marked with the names of those long gone who believed in God’s working in the world that they returned to God the gift they were given. 

Even today, your gifts are what makes this church possible. The gifts of your time, showing up for worship and prayer and study and service. The gifts of your talents that you share with God and with one another. And, of course, the gifts of your finances.

Giving is normative in discipleship. It’s how we live into God’s mission of transforming the world. 

But it’s also how we keep the lights on, and keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s how we are able to welcome and provide space for so many outside groups. It’s how we pay the salaries to support the livelihood of our staff and their families. It’s how we live into the strange and even foolish (at least according to the world) Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because, in the end, the parables are stories Jesus tells about himself and Jesus is the one who doesn’t store up his life on earth and, instead, freely gives it for you and me. Rather than clinging to his own life, Jesus mounts the hard wood of the cross for people undeserving, us. 

This parables stings, and it frightens, perfect for the month of October, even better for stewardship! But it is Good News!

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not our money or lack of it, not our possessions or our minimalism, not our goodness or our badness, not our lives and not even our deaths.

We might not see it, or even believe it, but there is greater wealth in the salvation of Christ than in every bank account in the world.

And it’s ours for free.

We can’t earn it.

We don’t deserve it.

It’s not cheap, nor is it expensive.

It’s free.

It’s free for you and me and every fool the world will ever see.

Wesley said, “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.” Thankfully, we worship the God who never stops giving. Which is why the psalmist can sing, “our cups runneth over.” The only question is, what are we going to do with what we’ve been given?

No Condemnation Now I Dread

Luke 18.2-6

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”

Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like a widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like a bailiff dutifully following orders. Not even like a stenographer observing and recording every little detail of a trial.

God is like the unjust judge.

Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to do for us what we need for no other reason than the fact that it will get all of us off of God’s back. 

Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in the midst of it.

In other words: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us! 

We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works. 

But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least bit of difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”

Jesus tells this parable as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. The cross is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you. 

The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.

The old hymn has it right: “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine; alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine, bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own!”

Thanks be to God.

The Divine Courtroom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 31.27-34, Psalm 119.97-104, 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5, Luke 18.1-8). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the transformation of judgment, nationalism, prophetic voices, new covenants, the function of the Law, the local Gospel, self-help books, the narrative scope of scripture, baldness, evangelism, and the unjust judge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Courtroom

The Perfect Church

Luke 2.41-52

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem of rite festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

I would like everyone to close your eyes for a moment, find a comfortable posture, and I would like you to imagine the perfect church…

What does it look like?

What kind of people are in it?

What are some of the things the church does?

It’s a little terrifying how easy it is to imagine “the perfect church” only to open our eyes and be stuck here with each other. It’s so easy to picture a particular church in our minds because that’s what life has conditioned us to do. We usually curate everything we can to benefit our own tastes, and leanings, and hopes, and dreams.

If we don’t agree with someone else on Facebook, we can just block and unfollow them.

If we start watching a movie and within ten minutes it’s boring we can push a few buttons and watch something else.

If we’re hungry for a particular meal, we need only open an app on our phones to have it delivered right to our door, despite all the food we might already have in the pantry.

Basically, we are consumers living in a consumable world. We choose exactly what we want, take what we want, and move on with unlimited choices and unlimited speed.

And, frankly, we bring this understanding of reality to the church as well. That’s why there’s every flavor of Christian denominationalism on Grandin Road. If you encounter a church that doesn’t give you what you want, there’s always another one to try. 

The only problem with that is the fact that what we want is not often what we need.

An example: We are blessed in this church to have visitors nearly every Sunday. That is something worthy celebrating, but a very strange phenomenon when taking in the scope of Christian history. Up until the last 100 years, you went to church where you could. Now we go to church where we want.

Anyway, we get a fair number of visitors here, those church shopping for a new church home. And, every once in a while, visitors come back again and again and I will meet with them to talk about what it might mean for them to join or become more involved. During that conversation I always ask about where they were attending church before. 

And, more often than not, someone will describe their last church, usually somewhat local, and how they attended for years until something particular happened. A too-political sermon. A unfortunate song choice on a Sunday morning. A stinging stewardship season. And that was enough to say goodbye.

According to the world this is a normal thing that happens. We can move on over and over again.

But in the realm of the church this is downright strange. 

Charles Spurgeon, 19th century preacher, put it this way:

“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”

Strangely enough, the church is where we discover the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ that leads us to live uncomfortable lives for him. Uncomfortable because, living for Jesus means living for the people in the church around us too.

When someone joins a United Methodist Church they covenant to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. To support the church by presence is literally that, it means being present

Part of our discipleship is a willingness to be present with God and with one another. We gather week after week to remember the stories of God and to be re-membered into the body of Christ. We break bread with one another in worship, and during the Garden, as a recognition that the Christian life is one that is meant to be shared. We show up for Bible studies, and outreach programs, and all sorts of other things because, on some level, we understand that being present together is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.

Luke’s Gospel has all the best stories. Mark is short and brief, Matthew is theological, John is all over the place, and Luke’s got the stories. And the story of Jesus at the temple is just so good.

It’s got drama and intrigue, family strife, and youthful rebellion.

And when we read it we tend to fixate on Jesus teaching the elders. He’s a 12 year old boy and everyone is amazed at his teaching. And so people like me stand up in a place like this and say things like, “Our youth are not the future of the church, they are the church right now.” And a 3.5 minute story will usually be shared about a youth and how they understand the kingdom better than we do. And so on.

And that’s all good and fine. 

Jesus does say that if we want to get into the kingdom of heaven we have to act like children.

And yet, I fear we miss something else in the story when we emphasize Jesus’ teaching in the temple alone. What we miss is the fact that this is also a story about horrible parenting!

Listen to it again: They traveled all the way to Jerusalem for Passover, a six days journey by foot, and when they were done they returned home Mary and Joseph did not know that they left their son behind.

What? How does that happen? It’s one thing to lose track of a wayward child in the grocery store, but leaving them behind in a foreign city? C’mon!

And that would be bad enough. But then it says they traveled a whole day before they noticed. AND THEN once they turned back it took them another 3 days to find him!

Jesus was in the Temple teaching and his parents were astonished and Mary said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Which is the Bible’s version of, “Boy, you had us worried sick! You are grounded from now until eternity!” 

And how does Jesus respond? “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Must is a strong word. In life all of our must and shoulds don’t muster up to much in the kingdom of God, but Jesus’ response is notable.

It is good and right to be in the house of God. Honor and keep the sabbath, that’s 1 of the 10 commandments. 

The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”

To be in the house of God was as necessary to Jesus as it is to breathe.

And yet, there are a few more staggering details in this story that really bring it all home. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem for Passover. Some 21 years later, on Passover in the same city, Jesus will take a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and share it with his friends. He will become the Passover Lamb for the them, the exodus for the rest of us.

Mary and Joseph abandon Jesus in the city, much like the aforementioned disciples will abandon him to the cross the day after Passover.

It take Mary and Joseph three days to find their son, much like Jesus sat in the tomb for three days before the resurrection.

And notably, after the family’s confrontation in the Temple, scripture says that Jesus returned home and was obedient to his parents and Mary treasured it in her heart. Which is another way of saying that Jesus forgave his parents for what they did to him, much like Jesus returns to his abandoning and denying disciples on the other side of Easter.

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the claim that salvation does not come to us by natural inclination, by birthright, by earning, or deserving. Salvation is a gift from God. And because it is a gift it can only be received on God’s terms, not ours. The church is the witness to the gift of salvation, reminding us time and time again what we have been given even though we deserve absolutely nothing.

That’s a hard truth to swallow, the “we deserve nothing.” But it’s true. We all do things we shouldn’t, we all avoid doing things we should. We are imperfect people. We might not be the type of people who forget our children back in Jerusalem and wander around for a few days before we find them, but we do have a lot more in common with Mary and Joseph than we let on. What’s more, even though we fail to be an obedient church, even though we fail to love God and one another, God offers us grace anyway. 

Therefore, the perfect church is actually an imperfect one, constantly reminding us of our imperfections and the great Good News that someone has come to help us. And that someone has a name: Jesus

Without the church how can we know that grace is given to us, how can we discover that we are caught up in Jesus’ story, how can we receive the sacraments?

We need one another, because you can’t baptize yourself no more than you can give communion to yourself. We need someone to give those gifts to us. We need the church to tell us again and again, “The world will only ever see you through your faults and failures, but God loves you.”

We need the church because it holds us together even when it feels like everything else is falling apart.

Rich Mullins once said, “Nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning. Every time we go to church we’re confessing again to ourselves, our families, to the person in the pew next to us, that we don’t have it all together. That we need direction, we need accountability, we need help.”

The reason for being present in church is the strange fact that this is the only community that is consciously formed, criticized, and sustained by the truth. Which is Good News for a world that runs by lies.

Church is the last vestige of place where we willfully gather with those who are not like us, this is the fellowship of differents. And though we are different, the truth that is Jesus Christ, somehow makes us one.

I often wonder why I kept going to church throughout my life. At first I was present in church because my parents made me – they couldn’t leave me home alone as a child even though Mary and Joseph clearly would have. 

But then, around my teenage years, I started running the sound system so I had to be present in church. And then I left for college, and there was a church that needed a drummer so I was still present in church. On and on and on.

And when I look back now, I know the answer to why I kept showing up for church: Jesus.

Jesus churched me. The church is how God dealt with me. I am who I am because of the church. Through sermons and sacraments, through friends and even foes, I was shaped into who I am.

God is in the business of remembering us. That is, God re-members us, puts us together, like pieces from a puzzle. And yet, have you ever pulled out a puzzle and worked away on a rainy day only to realize that one or two of the puzzle pieces we missing?

The picture isn’t complete.

The church is complete, the body of Christ is complete, when we are together. Your presence here makes the church the church. When we are present before God’s presence, we live God’s future in our present and it actually changes things. 

So welcome to the perfect church! It’s perfect because God does God’s best work with imperfect people like us. Amen. 

The First Resort

James 5.13-18

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six month it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

It was a typical Sunday morning with the typical Sunday crowd. We read, we sang, we listened, we gave, we received.

I announced the final hymn and we all started singing. 

Over the horizon of my hymnal I took a glance at God’s church. I saw the woman who had recently confessed to me that she was about to divorce her husband, who was standing and singing right next to her. There was the teenage girl who was accepted to every college she applied for and was currently experiencing the paralysis of analysis as she had to make a decision about which one to attend. And I saw one of the ushers dart out the back door for a cigarette, a habit he shared that he was trying desperately to drop.

But before we had a chance to make it to the second verse, Don keeled over in his pew with a loud thud.

There was a panicked moment as everyone turned toward the pew in question. I ran from the altar, and gathered around the man with a few others. We, thankfully, had a few nurses in attendance that morning and they went quick to work – one of them checked his pulse, another stretched him out to help open his airway, and other was on the phone with the rescue squad.

I leaned close and asked if there was anything I could do, and one of the nurses shot me a quick glance and declared, a little louder than I would’ve liked, “You could start praying preacher.”

And so I did.

Right then and there I closed my eyes and feel to my knees and I started praying. Soon I felt fingers wrapping around my own on both sides, and when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, the rest of the church had joined in a large circle and all of us were praying together for Don.

The rescue squad arrived with my amen, and they took Don to the hospital.

And then we did the only thing we could, we finished the hymn.

An hour or so later I drove to the hospital to check on him and when I walked into his room he, miraculously, treated me with a big toothy smile and he said, “I learned my lesson preacher, no more skipping breakfast before church.”

For as long as I can remember, I have been my family’s designated pray-er. Whenever we get together, and the timing is appropriate, all eyes will shift in my general direction and I am expected to lift something up to Someone, namely God.

Going into the ministry only made it worse.

But, let me confess, I’ve never found prayer to be an “easy thing.” I’m not even fully sure how I learned to do it other than picking up the language while spending so much time in and around church. Over the years I have come to find the prayers of the church, that is those written on behalf of the body of Christ, to be absolutely necessary to the fiber of my being. I find great solace in offering words to God that have been offered by so many so many times before. And yet, to stand in this place week after week leading us in prayers is just as bewildering as praying in this room day after day when none of you are here.

What I’m trying to say is this: Prayer is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and yet we so rarely talk and think about what prayer actually is.

James, the brother of the Lord, writes of prayer almost as if a foregone conclusion. If you’re suffering you should pray. If you’re cheerful, you should pray. If anyone is sick, they should ask for prayers. It’s as if the community called church to which James writes knows nothing except a life of prayer.

And yet, for many of us, myself included at times, we view prayer as a last resort. 

When push comes to shove, we are far more inclined to take matters into our own hands, than we are to lay them before the throne of God. If we are the masters of our own destiny, who wants to bring God into the situation and run the risk of messing everything up?

And yet, prayer is about more than just offering up a laundry list to God.

Prayer is the expression of a relationship, it is (to use a seminary word) a dialectic. It is the back and forth between Creator and creature. Prayer is where Christianity becomes practical. Prayer is something we do. It is, oddly enough, who we are. We, the church, are God’s prayer for the world. Prayer is what separates us from any other communal organization. 

But perhaps that’s getting a little too heady.

On a fundamental level, there are three types of prayers that can be summarized with three words: Help, Thanks, and Wow.

Prayer happens when we cry out for aid when there seems to be no aid around at all, it is the plea for help when we can no longer help ourselves. 

Prayer also happens when we are able to take a look around and realize how amazingly blessed we are, it is the communication of gratitude toward the One through whom all blessing flow.

And prayer also happens in those remarkable moment of awe. The Wow prayer is more than thanks. It is more like, “I can’t believe what God was able to do considering the circumstances.”

Sometimes prayers are made possible through a lot of work and reflection. And sometimes they billow forth without us even really thinking about what it is we are doing when we are praying. 

Karl Barth believed that to be a Christian and to pray were one and the same thing. Prayer is as necessary to a Christian as it is for a human being to breathe. 

Faithful prayers are those that offer us up to possibility because prayer is the ultimate recognition that we are not in charge. Prayer deconstructs all of our preconceived notions about what is, and isn’t possible. 

And, frustratingly, prayer teaches us what it means to be patient. Nobody likes being patient but life isn’t possible without it. Our world is based on speed but prayer is based on patience. Prayer is the reminder that God’s time is not our time, that God is God and we are not.

Put another way: Prayer is not about getting what we want, but what God wants. 

I spent a lot of time this week asking people from the church and the community about answered prayers. And, wonderfully, every single person had an answer. I heard of job searches, and relationships, and children, and parents, and homes, and healings. On and on.

To me, this church is an answer to prayer…

The Good News of prayer is that God listens, God answers. Sometimes it occurs in ways we cannot know for a long long time. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, at least not the way we want. But this community is constituted by our prayers. Prayers is the fuel that makes the church the church. 

But why continue talking about prayer when we can do it instead?

In just a few moments we are going to pray for one another. I know this won’t be easy, or comfortable, for a lot of us, but the church that prays together is, indeed, God’s church for the world. So we’re going to do it.

As you are able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not part of your normal church orbit. And, if we have an odd number, whoever is left will have to pray with me, so that should encourage you to pair off speedily.

Once you find a prayer partner, I would like each person to have an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. There are absolutely other people in other places experiencing other things who need our prayers, but for the moment I would like us to be more personal. It doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your job or children, or maybe you feel confused about a decision and you could use some discernment. 

Whatever the thing it, I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words.

The point is, I want every person here to pray and to be prayed for today.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let us pray…

Bloom Where You Are Planted

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Sara and Teer both serve Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including friendship in the workplace, peaceful situations, political welfare, grace, ecclesial architecture, joyful noises, spreadsheets, supplicatory prayers, memory, the main thing, faith, and word wrangling. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bloom Where You Are Planted

The Adventure That Is Church

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

I have a conflicted and tumultuous relationship with church membership.

I went through confirmation as a tween-ager in my home United Methodist Church and became a member at the conclusion, though we never once talked about what that meant. Instead we watched the 6 hour long film Jesus of Nazareth over 6 different Sundays and talked about what prayer was supposed to look like and feel like.

But covenanting to support the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Nope.

Additionally, when other people joined the church it would take place like this: The pastor would occasionally announce, right before the concluding hymn, that if anyone felt the Spirit moving them to join the church, then they could come forward and do so. And, occasionally, people would march forward, share their names and vocations before the benediction, and that was that.

Moreover, I am part of a generation that is deeply suspicious of joining anything

Therefore, when it comes to church membership I often let people come to me with their questions rather than pushing people to join.

And, after serving the UMC for nearly a decade, I think I’ve been wrong.

My wrongness stems from the fact that I have treated membership to the church like membership to any other number of organizations, whereas to join the church as a member is actually a profound witness to our faith.

For example: There’s a bishop from another denomination (thankfully) that often tells a story about recruiting for a local seminary. Over the years the bishop would meet with candidates and at some point in the conversation he would say, “Why should I join the church?” And the candidates would often wax lyrical about the music program, or the value of community outreach, or the fellowship that is present on Sunday mornings, but not a single candidate ever said anything about Jesus.

The church is not the local symphony through which you can experience dynamic music every once in a while. The church is not yet another social agency through which you can feel better about making other people’s lives better. The church is not a country club through which you can meet people of a similar social strata.

The church can be like those things, but the one thing the church is and has that nothing else does is Jesus.

Therefore, to join the church as a member is a remarkable thing. It is a strange adventure that is made possible only by faith.

Notably, when the Lord teaches the disciples about forgiveness they can’t wrap their heads around it. It would be one thing if Jesus told them they should try to forgive one another but instead he tells them they can never stop forgiving one another. That runs against everything the world teaches us. But forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, and of the church.

If we insist on being right and perfect and only ever surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, our lives will be miserable and boring.

The church, then, stands as a dynamic witness to the power of the Spirit. The great gifts of the church include connecting us with people we would otherwise never connect with, the sacraments that make our lives intelligible in the first place, and the promise of the empty tomb that offers us a new past where we are no longer defined by our mistakes and a new future where resurrection is reality. 

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I became a member of my home church, but it was the difference that made all the difference in the world. It was the difference because, week after week, the church gave me Jesus.

In the end, the church is a miracle and, like the early disciples, we need all the faith we can get for it to be the blessing that it is and can be.

Therefore, if you are not (yet) a member of a church, I encourage you to prayerfully consider joining. It will take faith, but even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough in the kingdom of God.