This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, shortsightedness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, instant gratification, divine subversion, geographic gathering, deadly trespasses, Nicodemus, and living in grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sola Gratia
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Ben Maddison about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Ben is an episcopal priest who serves as the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal church in Wenonah, NJ. Our conversation covers a range of topics including serving a church in a post-Christian context, clergy collars, fiery serpents, the temptation of allegory, healing and scars, God’s agency, backsliding, and Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Look At It And Live
God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now.” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”
This morning starts the beginning of our three-part sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. For the next three Sundays we will be looking at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about in Sunday school. These are the passages that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.
Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives. Our first story is from the book of Numbers regarding the prophet Balaam and his donkey.
(Put on the prophet costume) My name is Balaam and have I got a story for you. All these preachers try to explain what happened and make sense of my life, but they never get it right. Even some of the writers from the bible got real nasty and used me as an example:
Peter said “They have left the straight road and gone astray, following the road of Balaam, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (2 Peter 2.15)
Jude wrote “Woe to the people who are wrong, for they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain.” (Jude 1:11)
And even the guy your church is named after had something to say: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam and eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” (Revelation 2.14)
The truth is, I had a good gig, and I made the best out of it. I was a prophet of prophets, blessed with the powers of divination. I got lucky at the beginning, made a few good choices, used my words the right way, and stories about my powers began to spread.
Going through a dry-spell? For an affordable rate I would come out to your field and pray for the heavens to open up and the rain to pour forth: half due up front, and the other half on delivery.
Frustrated with your in-laws? With a reasonable down-payment I would travel to your relatives house and pray over their domicile for clear-heads and harmonious perspectives. Satisfaction NOT guaranteed.
Unsure of your future? With an easy set of monthly installments I would read your palms and tell you what was coming. I see an argument that remains unsettled… I predict days of joy and days of sorrow… You will be very cold in the winter and very warm in the summer… You will not get what you want for your birthday… Your wife will insist that you help with housework… Your husband will forget your anniversary…
I had a good gig and word spread quickly. Frankly, back in those days, people were willing to pay whatever I asked if they thought it could work. They were looking for cheap miracles at a high price, and I was the man to get the job done.
That’s when the King of Moab, a guy named Balak, entered my life. He had heard about this nation that had escaped Egypt, they called themselves the Israelites, and he wanted me to curse them. Now I wasn’t much for curses, but for the right price I would do anything.
We struck up a contract but before I signed the dotted line, the Lord appeared to me in a dream and told me not to curse God’s people, so I called the whole thing off.
But the king’s men came back and they offered me even more money, houses full of silver and gold. The Lord appeared again in a dream, telling me to go, but only to do and speak as he told me to.
When it came time to go, the money was speaking louder than the Lord so I set off on my trusted donkey, with dreams of swimming pools filled with gold and rooms covered in silver. Ready to say and do whatever it took to get my reward.
Time-out. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)
What an idiot! Can you believe he called himself a prophet of prophets? More like a prophet of profit. I loved Balaam, I carried him everywhere he needed to go, but he was an idiot. Do you know how many times his false promises got us in trouble? I never knew anyone that could smile with such confidence knowing that he was selling hypocrisy. He was like all those televangelists wrapped up in one, and the people couldn’t get enough of it. It never made any sense to me.
What an idiot! The Lord finally gave him permission to go, but Balaam was far more concerned with what he wanted, than what the Lord wanted. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume).
With the donkey carrying me steadily along toward the king of Moab, I started preparing my plan of attack. For a curse of locusts and famine was a fixed rate, but I could throw in a flood for an extra 15%. I mean, when the king asks you to curse, he surely would have the means to pay for the big stuff.
But as I started tallying up the totals, the dumb donkey turned off the road and started walking into a field! So I picked up my switch and I let him have it.
Later on the journey, when I had finally got the curse prepared with all sorts of big and made-up words, the donkey scraped my foot against a wall! That fool really felt it when I hit him that time.
And finally, when we were close to our destination, the donkey laid down in the middle of the road and just sat there! I was furious, I was Balaam the prophet, so I picked up my switch and hit him for a third time. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)
What an idiot. God was so angry with Balaam that he sent an angel of the Lord to kill him on the path, but he was so blinded by his love of money that he saw nothing. I knew that if I did not go into the field, or run us into the wall, or fall down in the path, that the angel of the Lord would surely kill my master.
But after Balaam hit me for the third time, something incredible happened. The Lord opened my mouth and I said to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me three times? Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden your whole life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, ready to kill him. Oh I wish you could’ve been there to see him fall straight to the ground, shaking and quaking in fear. That self-centered prophet of profit saw the error of his ways, and prayed for forgiveness from the Lord. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume.)
And would you believe it? The Lord told me to get up and say what he told me to say, and do what he told me to do. I met with King Balak, he showed me all the riches I was about to receive, and then he led me out to the Israelites. He told me to curse them, but when I went out to open my arms for the prayer, the Lord told me to bless them. So I did. (remove costume)
Balaam was supposed to be a prophet, someone who sees more than most, someone attuned to the will of God, and yet his donkey saw more than he did. Without that persistent reminder from the donkey carrying him on the road, Balaam would have been killed by his love of money and would have missed the opportunity for transformation.
I know a man who made a lot of money doing what he did, and spent more hours than most glued to his phone for work. One afternoon he came home and his son asked if they could play catch in the backyard. “No, no, no,” he said, “I’ve got too much work to do.” About a month later the son asked if his dad would pick him up from baseball practice to meet some of his friends, but the father had a business commitment so he said no. At the end of the season the son asked his father to come to his final baseball game to see him play, but a emergency happened at work, so the son played without his father in the stands.
Sometime later the family was getting ready to go on vacation and the father was fretting about whether or not his business would be alright without him and he spent the evening frantically packing whatever he could grab. When he turned around from the closet he saw his son stand in the door way holding an envelope. The young boy walked up to his father, and with the slightest quiver in his lip he handed him the envelope and said, “Dad, I’ve saved all my allowance from the last few months all the money I got for my birthday and I want to give it to you.” The father stood there in stunned silence as the boy finished: “but only if you promise to leave your phone at home when we leave for vacation.”
There are many donkeys in our lives, hoping to redirect our attention to the path in front of us. Be it a son vying for our attention, a sermon that strikes at our hearts, or a simple remark from a friend, the donkeys are there.
The good news is the fact that we get these little reminders at all! That rather than leaving us to our own devices, the Lord is active and alive in our midst. In our prayers we remember the world is much bigger than just ourselves. In the words of scripture we see faint reflections of ourselves and we are transformed by God’s grace. And in the bread and wine at this table we experience the one who gave his life for us, so that we might give our lives for others. Amen.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
A few weeks ago I found myself sitting at a table in a buffet style restaurant surrounded by other Methodist clergy from the local district. We had been called to meet that morning to discuss challenges facing the local church and a group of us had decided to get lunch immediately following the gathering. With mounds of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and gravy spread out between us, we began to converse and enjoy one another’s company.
For a little while we talked about the meeting and some of the comments from our peers. Later on we talked about the change in season and how beautiful it was starting to look in the valley. But, as with all clergy gatherings, the conversation moved toward a discussion of metrics:
“How many did you have in worship last Sunday?”
“Is you church paying their apportionments?”
“Are you receiving any new visitors?”
These questions drive me crazy. The commodification of the church is sinful temptation that many Christians, particularly clergy, cannot resist. I was sitting with my peers, fellow shepherds for the kingdom of God, when a string of questions immediately put up divisions between us. Instead of viewing one another as colleagues and peers, we saw competition and comparison. The questions were divisive, but the answers were even worse:
“We hit 130 most Sundays.”
“We’re not even close to paying our apportionments, we can barely keep the lights on.”
“We’ve had a lot of young families start to try out our church.”
We could have spent a wonderful time of food and fellowship discussing different ways to be Christ’s body for the world, we could’ve prayed for our peers and their ministries. However, our lunch was focused on numbers and many of us left either feeling defeated about our dying church, or high and mighty about our growing church.
For the budding nation of Israel, God was insistent on calling them to work together and not bear grudges against any of the people; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a sense they needed to know they they were in this together and to stop putting up walls between themselves. Similarly, we all fall to the temptation of holding grudges against people in our lives, and in particular with those who are closest to us. Clergy often compare their churches and ministries with their peers and forget that they are all working for God’s kingdom. Others will compare their marriages, jobs, children, salaries, families, etc. with the people around them instead of loving their neighbors as themselves.
Who are you holding a grudge against because of numbers? Which neighbor, friend, or family member do you need to start loving as you love yourself?
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Pastor, preacher, reverend; titles that I’m still not used to. After only having served this church for seven months, it never ceases to amaze me how many people in the community already identify me through my vocation. I will be sitting at the Bistro downtown ready to order dinner with Lindsey when the waitress begins by asking, “What can I get for you reverend?” Or when I’m sitting behind my computer at Coffee On The Corner my coffee is accompanied with a “here you go preacher.”
Its my own fault really. I love to tell people what I do. Whenever I meet someone new in town, I’m always eager to share with them my excitement at having been appointed to St. John’s.
This past week, I was visiting one of my favorite shops downtown (that will remain nameless) when I was greeted with the familiar title: Pastor. The owner and I have a fairly decent relationship and our conversation flows smoothly whenever we’re together. As he was ringing me up, we exchanged the regular pleasantries, talking about the cold weather and other such things, until he asked me about the church. I told him about how remarkably forgiving many of the congregants are regarding my sermons, and how thankful I am for their willingness to join me in this adventure we call “church.” Thats when the conversation got serious.
“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying it,” He said, “But church is just not the thing for me.”
Aside: I almost never ask anyone about church, and yet, people always bring up their attendance, or lack their of, in conversations.
By his tone and inflection, it was clear that he wanted to say more about the subject, so I inquired as to why church is not the thing for him.
“I used to go all the time,” he began. “I’ve popped around between different denominations, I was even an elder for a little while, but about ten years ago I lost faith in the church. We were doing all the right things, we had hundreds of people in worship every Sunday but we never did anything for the community. Everything the church did was so inwardly focused. Debates about the wallpaper, the type of bread for communion, and timing for Sunday services dominated all of our conversations. Whenever I tried to raise a need within the community that the church could meet it was brushed aside as being insignificant. Finally, at a council meeting, I could no longer contain myself. After years of watching this “perfect church” ignore the desperate needs of the people outside the building, I stood up in the front of the leadership and declared, “I think when Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ he really meant to feed his sheep.” I have not been to a church since.”
In the sixth chapter of Micah, the prophet relays God’s controversy with his people. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
At that time in Israel’s history, the people had grown weary and bored with their God. They were just going through the motions when it came to worshipping the good God who had been at the center of their very lives for so long.
How could they have become bored with God? He had delivered the people from their oppressors, raised up mighty leaders, sent truthful prophets, and brought all the people to a full awareness of his righteousness. Yet, they had forsaken him. They lived immersed in the love of God, yet were blind to much, if not most, of it.
Micah then describes “real religion” as opposed to the ways to Israelites were behaving: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good. and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah presents the simple essentials of real religion in a verse that has taken its place among the most favored of scripture. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Real religion is predicated on the lived reality of discipleship that changes everything.
God made it known to the Israelites the proper and good response to their Lord. The people are required to practice justice, to seek equality between themselves and others; to love kindness, to maintain a loyal commitment to God and others; and to walk humbly with their God, to live transformed lives conformed to the image of God. Real religion is a journey of faith working by love leading to holiness of heart and life.
So, where are we with God? Have we grown tired and weary of the God we have come to worship? Are we attending church, practicing our faith, and loving others out of obligation or excitement? What do we think the Lord requires of us?
Is our relationship with God determined by our attendance at church, coming to worship at 11am every Sunday, singing a couple hymns, hearing scripture read aloud, and listening to a 15 minute sermon? Are we simply going through the motions of faith, or does our faith shape the way we act outside of this building?
During the time of Micah, God no longer wanted the sacrifice of animals, burnt offerings, and rivers of oil. Instead he wanted what he already showed to be good: justice, kindness, and humility.
And when we read that list of what God does not want, it makes the threefold expectation seem easy. The real demands of God however, are both moral and spiritual, and the proper worship of God is a life obedient to them. Without justice, kindness, and humility, any of our practices in church can wound our faith. Instead of creating worthy habits for life, we appear to be bargaining with God to take something less than he actually wants of us. If our faith can be compartmentalized into one hour a week, if our faith is limited to church worship alone, than we desperately need to hear Micah’s word.
Like the ancient Israelites, we live and die immersed in the love of God. Yet, how often are we blind to much, if not most, of it?
Micah begged the people to exhibit true faith, true worship, and true morality that will come to completion in true behavior. What we believe shapes how we behave.
However, proper morality is not a substitute for religion. Its not just about “being a good person.” Outward conduct is essential for the life of faith, but it always depends on the inward character that is shaped by the gathering community of faith.
Justice, kindness, and humility might sound easy and comfortable to those who have never tried them, but the overwhelming truth is that these three practices are far more costly than thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or a more contemporary allusion might be that truly practicing justice, kindness, and humility will always be harder than giving numerous possessions away in order to somehow appease God.
If this church takes seriously our commitment to forming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need learn to translate mercy into our regular daily deeds through a close, nurturing, and personal journey of faith with God. The Lord demands our lives, our love, our trust, and our loyalty.
When driving around Staunton, it is nearly impossible to miss the cacophony of churches scratched across the landscape. In my life, I have never lived in a place with so many steeples. In fact, during one of my first weeks here someone told me that Staunton has more churches per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no idea how to confirm whether or not this is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.
In my short time here I have created relationships with some of the other clergy in town; I’ve gone out to lunch, initiated a lectionary based breakfast group, and shared numerous cups of coffee. Do you know what the first question is almost every time I meet a different pastor? “How many people do you have in worship?”
This week, while reading over Micah, I realized that getting asked about worship attendance is close to what the Israelites must have felt when someone asked, “how many rams did you sacrifice this week, how many river of oil did you present to God?”
Really? Of all the things that we could possibly talk about, the first question is always about church attendance. I wonder why we aren’t talking about ways that we can practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
Why are we all so consumed with the numbers instead of planning ways to serve our community? And I’ll admit that I am certainly guilty of this practice. When I am asked about worship, I proudly respond about the growth of our church and the warm and inviting atmosphere that one encounters when walking through the door. But I have to be reminded too, I have to ask myself, ‘What does the Lord require?’ Does God want us to grow this church and fill it to the brim to the point where we no longer know who we are worshipping with? Or is God calling us to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly? Not that they are mutually exclusive, but until our focus is more on living our faith, rather than filling our building, our building will never be filled.
So, how can we practice justice as individuals and as a church? We can open our eyes to the needs of our community. We can seek out the last, least, and lost, to give them the one true gift worth sharing: love. We can stand up against the small and large injustices that occur everyday, whether its an unfair judgement in the work place, or racist comments, or belittling words between spouses. We can practice justice by living out our faith in the world.
How can we love kindness as individuals and as a church? We can initiate relationships with strangers knowing that God has done the same for us. We can show our love to our families and friends by making the extra phone call to just say “Hi.” We can truly greet one another when we gather in worship, not just the same people we talk with every week, but particularly those who are still strangers to us. We can show our loving kindness but living out our faith in the world.
How can we walk humbly with our God? We can recognize that God is not only concerned with our religious rituals, but calls for us to live out faith beyond these walls. We can admit that we have, and will continue to, fall short of God’s glory. We can find salvation and redemption through our faith in God, and God’s faith in us. We can come forward to the table and receive the bread and wine humbly, knowing that we have done nothing to deserve it. We can walk humbly with our God by living out our faith in the world.
What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.