Christmas Ruins Advent

Waiting is a dirty word, at least to the ears of most Christians (in America). After all, we are a people of action. We are not comfortable to sit idly by while something could be taken care of. In the world of United Methodism, this is inherently part of our DNA as John Wesley is the one who first said, “Never leave anything till tomorrow, which you can do today. And do it as well as possible.”

It is therefore strange and uncomfortable to arrive at church during the Advent season to hear all about the virtues of waiting.

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In many ways we blindly stagger toward the word of waiting with connections to waiting to open what is under the tree more than waiting on Jesus. It functions as a trite and helpful little analogy that resonates with parents and children alike. And so long as we’re all patient, we’ll get that for which we hope on Christmas morning.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us want to wait around for anything, let alone presents, the birth of the Savior, or his promised return.

Or, to put it another way, if God isn’t going to bring us the kingdom, we’ll bring it ourselves. That’s the American way.

In his sermon “Waiting” from Minding the Web Stanley Hauerwas laments our inability to wait during a season all about waiting:

“Advent is a time, and time is at the heart of what it means for us to be a people who have learned to wait. Therefore at Advent, we think it important to at least act as if we are waiting… we play at being Jews for a few weeks, but we do so as if we are in a drama with designated roles for us to play. However, once the play is over, we have no reason to play the roles associated with waiting.”

There’s a reason that many in the mainline church avoid the early Pauline corpus in worship – it’s too apocalyptic. All that talk of Jesus returning again sounds like what people in crazy churches talk about. We are far more sensible. We are helping people become better people. We are taking care of business. 

And we do so because we have been habituated this way. Our bodies and our minds are shaped by practices and rituals that start to form us such that we no longer know how we wound up this way. Pay attention the next time you’re in church, notice how many times you hear the words “should” and “ought” and “must.” The church today has taken upon itself the burden of responsibility and habituates it into the people through the words and practices of worship that leave us feeling like we have to do something no matter what that something might be.

Consider how we treat the presents under the tree as children (and to some degree as adults). We were once encouraged to ask for particular things from Santa, or from friends and family, all under the auspices of possibly receiving those very gifts so long as we behaved accordingly. This is all the more relevant today with the meteoric popularity of the “Elf on the Shelf.” We are always making new ledgers to keep others in line.

But part of the message of the Gospel is that God has thrown out the ledger books forever! As Paul wrote, “And when you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2)

The songs we sing (He’s making a list, checking it twice) and the traditions we practice (Elves hiding on shelves) form us into people who are afraid that our behavior will remove blessings (presents) from our lives. And for as much as we’d like to consider ourselves beyond these silly theological ramblings as adults – habits formed in childhood are very hard to break.

Which leaves us far more comfortable with waiting for a baby in a manger who appears innocuous and unable to judge us, than waiting for the Son of Man who comes to judge both the living and the dead. For, we know in our heart of hearts, we’ve done things for which we should rightly be judged.

We no longer know how to wait. We want to skip to Easter Sunday without having to confront Good Friday and we want Christmas without Advent. And yet all of them, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable, point us to something beyond ourselves: The judged judged has come to be judged in our place. Jesus’ crucifixion, made possible by his incarnation, has accomplished that for which it was purposed. 

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Jesus’ crucifixion rattled the very constitution of the universe because death could not hold him. Three days later he is raised. He walks with two former followers on the road to Emmaus, teaching them how to read Scripture. Such instruction was required, because they found it difficult to understand how the one to liberate Israel could end up on a cross.” 

Today, it seems we are a people who find it difficult to believe that God would choose to die for us. We’d rather hear about all the things we can do to earn God’s favor than to believe that God favors us regardless of our behavior. 

We are not particularly good at waiting because we want to take matters into our own hands. And yet part of the message of Advent is that if it were all up to us, we would fail. We need a savior who can come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In the end the only thing we have to do is wait, because the rest is up to God. 

Unknowable – A Wedding (Renewal) Homily

Matthew 6.25-34

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the filed, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the filed, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” Or “What will we drink?” Or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for such things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. 

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No one knows what they are doing when they get married.

Everyone thinks they know what marriage will look like because they assume that everything is like how it is portrayed in the movies. Which, most of the time, never shows the marriage, but only everything leading up to it. We, then, bring to the altar all these preconceived notions about what our marriages will be when the truth is none of us know what we are doing.

Allow me to present a resounding example:

I asked Rosina a few months ago if she could remember what it was that drew her closer to Nathaniel all those years ago. She charmingly brought a finger to her chin and furrowed her brow only to declare that the thing that most attracted her to him was his hair.

His hair, huh?

Where is all of that hair now?!

We have no idea what we’re doing when we get married because we, as people, are forever changing. That’s why the act of Christian marriage is one of the more bizarre things any of us can do, because we know not what the future holds and yet we make a promise, a covenant, to face that future with another person.

Now, I want to be clear that most of you here know Nathaniel and Rosina better than I do simply because you’ve known them longer than I have. But I do know that all of us here can attest to the fact that your marriage is nothing short of a miracle.

It is a miracle not only because neither of you really knew what you were getting into but also because Rosina has had to put up with all your nonsense all of these years Nathaniel! She really is the pastor of your family because she knows what real forgiveness looks like.

I’m only kidding around. 

It is a miracle because all marriages are miracles. God sees us, really sees us, with all of our idiosyncrasies, and all of our needs, and all of our faults, and all of our failures, and says, “Why not put these two together? They can probably figure it out.”

And figure it out you have.

But let’s get back to the beginning shall we? You two are here, after all, to renew your wedding vows and there’s no better way to do that than by remembering how you got here.

The story goes that one of Nathaniel’s cousins had a salon and one day Rosina walked in to get her hair done. Now, Nathaniel had seen her around town before this momentous meeting took place, he told me that he still loves the way you walk (!), but when he saw her in the salon he knew he had to do something.

To be clear, most enterprising young men would think of a witty remark to offer, or would simply ask if the young woman would like to go out sometime. But no, not Nathaniel. Instead he had it worked up in his mind to make a grand gesture. So what did her do? He paid for her hair.

For a complete stranger!

But he knew it would take some time for it to all wrap up so he decided that he could come back later to reveal his plan and see if his kindness could land him a date.

I can only imagine how puffed up your chest must have been that afternoon as you walked around town. You must’ve thought you were the smartest man alive.

And yet, when Nathaniel returned to the salon, Rosina was long gone!

Rosina left with a free hairdo and Nathaniel was left with the bill!

Eventually they did meet up with each other, they decided to go out together one night, and the spent the entire time talking to each other.

And now here you two are all these years later.

I know, for a fact, that neither of you could’ve have predicted where your relationship would take you. 

For instance, Nathaniel, there’s no way you could’ve known that after applying to the immigration lottery for years and years that Rosina would win on her first try. 

There’s no way either of you could’ve anticipated leaving most of your lives behind in Ghana to try out a new life here in the United States. 

There’s no way you could imagined having the incredible children that you have.

There’s no way you could’ve known that one day you’d be standing in front of a pastor as old as you two have been together renewing your marriage vows!

Your entire relationship has been one with mountaintops and valleys. You both can look back over the years and remember both the laughter and the disappointment. That’s what makes marriage work. You know that you don’t know anything. But you cling to one another in the midst of the mystery.

And here’s what you have to show for it. Turn around please, and take in this view. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. For here, in this space, you are forced to confront the strange truth that your marriage was never really up to you in the first place. Everyone in this room has played a part to bring you back to the covenant you made so long ago. 

Sure, we could chalk it up to your great sense of style Nathaniel, or we could attribute it to your marvelous hair Rosina. Or still yet we could give credit to Nathaniel’s loyalty and honesty, or even Rosina’s passion and faith.

But the truth of the matter is that these people, and the Lord Almighty, have done more for your marriage than you could possibly imagine.

Now back to me. 

When we were meeting to plan out this whole covenant renewal I asked both of you to consider an interesting question. Most of the time when I’m marrying a couple I ask them to imagine what marriage is, or what their marriage will look like. 

But the two of you have been married for awhile now which meant I got to turn the question around. So instead of asking you to imagine marriage I asked you to consider what advice you would give to other people getting married.

Who could be better at offering advice than those who have already journeyed through the crucible of marriage?

And I loved your answer: “You need to have patience! It’s the most important thing in the world because patience can fix anything. And you have to pray. Marriage is hard, and you can’t do it on your own, you need God with you.”

So what do all marriages need? Patience and prayers.

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It would seem to me, therefore, that we haven’t changed much since the time of Jesus. The disciples were a bunch of worriers. They worried about everything. And do you know what the only good that can come from worrying is? More worrying.

And Jesus decides to speak directly into their anxieties and their fears with words that have resounded throughout the centuries: Don’t worry about your life! Think about the birds of the air… do you think they spend all their time flying so high filled with worry? No. They are fed and that is enough. When will you ever learn that you have enough?!

Do you think that by worrying you can add one minute to your lives? Of course not, worrying takes away life. 

Think instead upon the grace of the Lord, who cares not about your faults and failures, who worries not about your faithfulness or grace, but who satisfied to shower life and life abundant down upon you for no good reason at all. 

Stop worrying about tomorrow! God is in control. God knows what you need. And God provides.

This was the first passage that came to mind when I began considering your covenant renewal. Because you two are the type of people who know, more often than not, that all of the good in your life, your friends, your family, your faith, never came from you in the first place. Sure, you two look good, you are clothed better than Solomon in all of his glory, and yet you hold a humility that Solomon never knew.

You two see, better than most, how truly blessed you really are. And, more importantly, you know that you can’t take it for granted.

In my life I have rarely encountered two people for whom their joy is as infectious as yours. 

It doesn’t matter if I’ve preached the worst sermon of my life, Nathaniel, you are always waiting in the narthex to cheer me up. 

It doesn’t matter if I’m going through all kinds of stuff in my life, Rosina, because you always great me with a tremendous smile and encourage me to be grateful.

It’s one thing to talk about how all these people have played a role in your lives, and in your relationship, and in your marriage, but its another thing entirely for all of us to praise God for putting you two in our lives. Your commitment to one another has given us a glimpse of God’s commitment to us – an unwavering, joyful, and even at times ridiculous connection that will go on forever.

However, lest we give you two too much credit, all of the good that has come from your marriage came first from God. God gives more than we deserve. God loves us even when we do not love him back. God has turned the world upside down for us in the person of his Son so that we might always walk in the glory of the resurrection.

I see and I feel and I know resurrection in this life because I know both of you. I can believe in impossible things because you two shine the light of Christ through your lives each and every day.

So, Rosina and Nathaniel, thank you for blessing us. And may the Lord continue to bless you in your marriage such that you are filled with a prayerful patience that can lead you through even more surprises. Amen. 

Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ordination papers, getting outside the church, dreams of patience, God in music, tinkering with prayer, Breaking Bad, literal funeral arrangements, mercy, prodigal years, and being stuck in the kitchen. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13

Devotional:

1 Peter 4.13

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

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“Who are you?” That is without a doubt one of my favorite questions to ask, because the way someone responds to that simple question says a lot about how the individual understands who he/she is. If I asked you the question right now, how would you respond? Recently, I’ve discovered that when I ask the question, the first response is almost always “I’m an American.”

This is, of course, true for many people in the context I serve, and it speaks volumes about priorities and identities. If someone’s immediate response was “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father” we could assume that they understand their parental role as their most important and therefore the identity they identify with most. Similarly, if someone’s response was “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” we could assume their political identity is their most important identity.

And answering with “I’m an American” can be a good and right thing, but if that is our first thought or response, it often shapes our understanding of Christianity rather than the other way around.

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Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their fears regarding change in the cultural ethos and most of it has to do with feeling safe. For instance, “We need to have that wall on the southern border to keep us safe” or, “We should’ve elected Clinton because she would’ve kept us safe.” But as Christians, being consumed by a desire to remain safe is strange and almost unintelligible; we worship a crucified God!

Peter calls the church to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” In America, as Americans, we fell so safe in our Christian identities that we assume being a Christian and being an American are synonymous. Therefore we are more captivated by a national narrative (Freedom, Capitalism, Democracy) than by the Christian narrative (Suffering, Patience, Penitence). But to call ourselves disciples implies an acknowledgement that, if we want to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we might find ourselves on top of a hill with a criminal on our left and on our right.

Taking our faith seriously is a difficult thing to do when it appears normative in the surrounding culture. Instead we fall captive to the other narratives that we believe dictate our lives. But the truth is that God is the author of our salvation, that the Holy Spirit determines our lives far more than any country, and that Jesus is our Lord.

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Devotional – James 5.8

Devotional:

James 5.8

You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

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Christmas pageants require patience. Christmas pageants for preschoolers require particularly profound patience. Every year the students of St. John’s Preschool spend time each day during the season of Advent practicing and rehearsing their lines for their annual Christmas pageant. We always have a Mary and a Joseph who carefully hold a baby doll in their hands as they sit patiently toward the front. We always have a couple Wisemen who are forever beating each other with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we have an assorted collection of barnyard animals including mice, sheep, cows, and at least one donkey.

Today I gathered with the children in the sanctuary and, as the defacto narrator, I led them through the pageant from beginning to end. When our shyer students walked up to the microphone I was ready to feed them their line and when our gregarious students walked up to the microphone I covered my ears in anticipation of them belting out their one line proclamation.

Meanwhile, a father of one of our students was in the preschool preparing Christmas trees for each of the classrooms. The hope was that after practicing, the children would return to their rooms with the surprise of cheer waiting for them in the form of a tree and then they could decorate each tree as they saw fit.

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When we finished the pageant, I walked with the children to their rooms and as soon as they saw the Christmas trees they went berserk. Our pretend shepherds were jumping up and down while our animals were spinning around in circles and even Mary and Joseph were screaming with joy. I did my best to calm them and then we sat on the floor to talk about the trees and how the relate to the Christmas story. I began with what I thought was a rather innocuous question: “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” To which one of our three year olds shouted out, “TO GET PRESENTS!!!”

Advent is a season of patience. While others want to jump straight to Christmas morning, while our preschoolers salivate over wrapped boxes under the tree, we strive to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the season of strengthening our hearts so that we might be prepared to receive the gift of the Christ-child with unadulterated joy (like the preschoolers) while also remembering the real present is God’s presence with us.

Devotional – Luke 11.1

Devotional:

Luke 11.1

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

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Back in October I preached a sermon series on why we do what we do. One Sunday we explored why we give our gifts to the church, another Sunday we explored why we worship the way we do, and on the final Sunday we talked about why we pray.

Of course, we usually pray because we want something from God; we cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we ask for peace. We know why we pray, and Jesus answered the question of “How to pray?” by giving the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

But I often wonder if we are praying for the right things.

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To conclude the sermon back in October I asked everyone in worship to open their bulletins and pull out the envelope and blank piece of paper that had been placed inside. I said, “I would like each of us to take out the paper and write down a true prayer to God. It has been my experience that when I pray out loud I don’t take the necessary time to really contemplate what I am asking for. But if we slow down enough to write down our prayer, it might encourage us to pray like Jesus. So write out your prayer, and then place it in the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of us to write our name and address on the front and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God. And we will mail them back to you in a number of months. God answers our prayers, sometimes in different ways than we can imagine. My hope is that we will all take the time to earnestly pray to God, and in the months ahead we will begin to have our eyes opened to the ways God is moving in our lives.”

That was nine months ago, and today the envelopes are being sent back out.

We currently live in a culture so steeped in instant gratification that we expect God to answer our prayers immediately. However, God’s time is not the same thing as our time. It is my belief that God has, in some way, shape, or form, answered our prayers over the last nine months and perhaps we can only see that now looking back. So keep your eye out for your mailbox this week, rejoice in the prayer that you once offered, and give thanks for the way God has responded.

Why The Cross? – Good Friday Homily

John 19.28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

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I get asked a lot of questions. I’ll be in a bible study when the conversation moves to an area of confusion and all eyes will turn to me and someone will inevitably say, “What does this mean?” Or I’ll be in my office and someone will walk in to share about all of the trials and tribulations they’ve experienced and finish by asking, “So where is God in all of this?” Or, like after the atrocity in Brussels this week, I’ll receive an email that says, “How could God let this happen?” People are looking for answers.

On Wednesday morning I gathered all the little preschoolers into the sanctuary to talk about the cross. I wanted to show them the cross we have here in the sanctuary and eventually have them march outside in a line while I carried the cross. For most of them, Easter is about the bunny and the candy so anything I can do to make it more about Jesus is important.

They were all sitting nice and quiet in the pews as I explained Jesus’ final week, and that he died on a cross to help us get to heaven, and most of the kids nodded along. But one sat in the back pew with her eyebrows in an expression of “huh?” I tried to keep moving us forward but I could tell it wasn’t connecting with her so when I saw her shoot her hand up with a question I wasn’t surprised.

She asked, “But why did he have to die on a cross?”

In the moment I tried to answer her question in a way that only a four year old could understand, but the question has stayed with me nonetheless. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?

Well, he had to die on a cross because that’s the way the Romans executed those who they regarded as a threat. Today we have drones and missiles that we can fire from far away in order to remove ourselves from death, but during the time of Jesus, they were hung high in the air so that all could see what happened when you challenged Rome. The cross was a sign of death and fear.

But that answer is not good enough for those, few, of us who gather in a place like this on Good Friday. If you’re here right now, you get that discipleship is more than just Easter. You get that Jesus was more than just a nice guy. You get that there is something more to this cross than symbolic remembrance.

Jesus died on a cross to reveal the heart of God.

The cross is where God’s grace crosses our life to create a new way of living.

We’ve got crosses everywhere and sometimes we forget how terrifying they were and should be. It is our central icon and we have them displayed in our sanctuary, some of us have crosses around our necks, and some of us even have them tattooed on our bodies. But notice: our crosses are empty. It would disrupt our Protestant sensibilities to have a murdered and graphic Jesus hanging on the cross for everyone to see. We would rather have the clean empty cross to remind us of the resurrection. But if we lose sight of the fright and discomfort of the crucifixion, the empty grave becomes cheap grace.

So, to be here on Good Friday implies a willingness on our part to confront the cross and we also want it explained. We want to know ‘why.’

But Jesus doesn’t offer us an explanation.

Whenever the religious elite, or the crowds, or his disciples questioned him, he would respond in cryptic parables that left them more confused than in the beginning. Jesus doesn’t offer simple explanations. Instead he offers love.

Explanations will never calm our anxieties in regard to suffering and tragedy. The people who try to explain the death of a young child by saying that “God wanted another angel in heaven” transform God into a murderer for the sake of an explanation. The people who try to explain a disabled child as “God’s way of punishing the mistakes of the parents” make God in a torturer for the sake of explanation. The people who try to rationalize terrorist attacks with “God is using them to show us its time to go to war” morph God into a selfish, violent, and manipulative entity for the sake of explanation.

Love, not explanation, is required when we are faced with tragedies. Instead of telling a grieving mother that God wanted her baby, we are supposed to show up with love and not answers. Instead of blaming sinful or faithless behavior for the disabilities in a child, we are supposed to love them with every fiber of our being. Instead of dropping bombs and sending drones to wipe out the Middle East we are supposed to see them as our brothers and sisters.

To be Christian is to enter into suffering. We do not look away from tragedies, we do not abandon those who are alone, and we do not isolate ourselves from the ways of the world. Instead, because of the cross, we are tasked with showing up for others when there is literally nothing we can do to save ourselves from suffering.

So, we could take the time to outline the connections between Jesus hanging on a tree with the first sin of Adam and Eve taking fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We could go deep into rationalizing the cross through theories like God used Jesus as bait to hook the devil from hell. But the truest response to the cross, the way we are called to go forth from Good Friday, is to look at the cross and take up our own to follow Jesus. Amen.

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