We Are (Not) Together

We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions

Directions:

Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together. 

Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
    1. 1 Corinthians 3.9
    2. For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.
  2. Ask everyone to share their names.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
    9. If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
    10. If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
    11. Who is your hero and why?
    12. What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
    13. If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
    2. Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.

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Homily:

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.

But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.

A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.

The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.

We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?

We Are (Not) Crucified

1 Corinthians 2.1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do not speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 

I was standing in line, along with everyone else, waiting for my chance to pass through customs. We were on our way to Guatemala to spend a week working in the remote highland area with an organization called HSP. The group had packed accordingly, we had read all the right scriptures that compelled us to go and love on our neighbors to the south, and honestly we were just really excited. We were college and high school students, and for some of us this would be our first time going out of the country.

It was the 4th of July, and you could tell from the sheer amount of red, white, and blue adorning just about everyone leaving the US. We joked in line and the buzz of anticipation was palpable in the air. I, just like most everyone else, was wearing a shirt with an American Flag prominently displayed on the front when I was my turn to step forward and hand over my passport.

I patiently smiled as the TSA worker looked at my picture, looked at me, looked at my ticket, and then looked at my shirt. Her gaze promptly returned to the desk in front of her, and without even looking up she said, “Just a piece of advice – I’d change my shirt if I were you.”

I stood in confused silence – I mean, why would I need to change my shirt?

And, as if reading my mind, the TSA agent said, “You’re traveling to a place where that flag doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Bible-and-Flag

Reading from the Apostle Paul in worship can be a difficult endeavor. His sentences tend to drag along and he is quite the fan of repeating himself. And taking the time to look at his argument, if we want to call it that, week after week after week is, possibly, an ill-advised proposition.

And yet, here we are.

Today, many of us, if not most of us, face the unenviable task of coming to grips with the fact that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel stories were recorded. That is, the earliest churches that sprung out around the Mediterranean had a better than good chance of meeting or reading from Paul long before they got a chance to hear or read from the evangelists.

Therefore, for those of us who think we can get closer to Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, that’s all good and fine. But to elevate the gospels as much as we do does a disservice to the work of Paul.

And, it’s not easy. I mean, Paul’s letters contain almost no references to the teachings of Jesus. He doesn’t recount the beauty of the Prodigal Son, or hammer home the words from the Sermon on the Mount, or even talk about the miracle of feeding 5,000 by the sea. Instead, it is the word of the cross that coveys the everything Paul wishes to share. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” was the message that reshaped reality and turned the world upside down.

That’s not to say that the stories of Jesus, those he told and those he lived out, are of non-importance. They are absolutely pivotal. And yet, we often read Paul today as if he took the simple messages of Jesus and complicated them into these opaque and intellectual arguments. When, in fact, the truth is quite the opposite: Paul distilled the gospel in a way that we would not have known without him.

A small, but potent example: Jesus tells the disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. If that’s all we’ve got then woe to the rich, because this is as good as its going to get. But Paul is adamant, throughout the letters, the Christ dies for us while we are sinners, that every single one of our sins are nailed to the cross whether we’re rich or poor, and the justification of the ungodly (that’s all of us) is the whole thing.

The work of Christ on the cross then becomes the lens by which the gospels come into focus, and not necessarily the other way around.

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Knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified is no easy thing to do. It wasn’t for Paul and it’s not easy for us. We are constantly in search of signs of demonstrated power so as to know where our allegiances should reside. We look up to the healthy and the wealthy as if they are more important and holier than the sick and the poor. We are so persuaded by, to use Paul’s words, the rulers of this age rather than the one who came to overthrow the powers and the principalities that compete for our attention.

I stood in the airport, displaying my red, white, and blue, and right before I boarded the flight, I took it off and put something else on. I spent the following week working with and among people whom I otherwise never would have seen, and I learned more than I could have dreamed.

Sure, I learned a lot about what it means to be a faithful disciple, and what it means to put faith into action, but the thing I learned the most about was what it meant to be an American. At least, what it meant to be an American to those who are not. 

That week in the Guatemala opened up my eyes to the long and sordid history of the United States with the government and civil war in Guatemala. I discovered how our country, in the name of freedom, instituted a new government in their country, assuming it would make for a more favorable relationship between the countries. But I also discovered how ravaged families and communities were by those actions, how many young men were indiscriminately murdered in a short period of time leaving behind a country that is still suffering the consequences of ours.

For me, it was a painful moment of transformation. For, in those conversation and interactions, in the tears and in the stories, I realized that, by the world’s standards, I am a citizen of empire. The country of my home and the country of my birth has bullied the rest of the world into recognizing our supposed superiority such that I was encouraged to remove my patriotic teeshirt before leaving the country.

In other words, I am exactly who Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 2. And so is every average American Christian.

We might enjoy spending our time bickering among ourselves about what President Trump said during the State of the Union, or Nancy Pelosi ripping up his speech, or who really won the Iowa Caucus, or any other number of things, all the while people across the world are living entirely different lives. 

How we carry ourselves in the world, whether at home or abroad, makes a tremendous difference because, whether we realize it or not, the Red, White, and Blue says a lot more about us than we think.

Even a sentence like that is troubling and confounding these days because the “us” in the “says more about us” is almost undefinable. As soon as we feel lumped into something we feel like we shouldn’t, we throw up our arms as if to say, “That’s not me!” And we very quickly and rapidly move into a posture of rigid defense and we stop up our ears from having to hear anything contrary to what we might think or even believe.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the symbols of patriotism in the United States. Proudly displaying flags and colors and even documents like the Declaration of Independence are all fine. Except, for Christians, those patriotic symbols seem to mean more to us than the symbol of our faith: the cross. 

And it makes total sense. The cross is an ugly and deadly thing. We don’t want to be bombarded with thoughts of death and suffering and so we prefer to worship and idolize other symbols – symbols that appear more simple.

The cross is anything but simple.

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We are forever trying to reduce the complex questions of life into these manageable and simple solutions as if there really is a solution to every single problem in the world. And whoever comes up with the easy formulas for success are the people we worship the most. We do it with politicians we do it with preachers we do it with just about anybody.

If the solution can fit nicely into a tweet or a soundbite on the news then its good enough for the rest of us. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are the masters of fate, and we therefore have nothing to be afraid of.

Except, it’s not true.

We are not in control. Fate is fickle. And there is plenty to be afraid of. 

The cross always hangs on the horizon, an ever present reminder that when things get tough, when things get too complicated, we all too often resort to violence and power and control in order to put things back the way we think they should go.

We did it with Jesus on the cross.

We did it with Guatemala.

We’re still doing it as a nation, and we’re all, in some way, shape, or form doing it in our own lives.

We think that it’s all up to us, and we’ve forgotten that the cross also stands to show us how Christ is already in the business of putting us back together, in ways we’d rather not if it were up to us.

But thanks be to God that’s its not up to us, because if it were all we’d achieve is more of the same instead of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. If it were up to us we’d only associate ourselves with the people who already think like us, and talk like us, and even look likes us instead of being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that only have one thing in common: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians because he was devastated by how quickly they had fallen away from the complicated message of the cross. They had factionalized around different leaders that only told them what they already wanted to hear, instead of hearing the good news that sounds too good to be true: Christ died for us while we were sinners, which means we cannot remain as we were.

The church was not and is not meant to be like the world – It is a counter-cultural endeavor in which the powers and principalities and empires of this world are called into question. Knowing nothing but Jesus and him crucified is but another way of articulating a different way of being in the world.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is crucified so that we don’t have to be. We don’t have to mount the hard wood of the cross because Christ has already done it for us. We don’t have to suffer the indifference of the world because Christ has come to conquer the world. 

Paul implored those first Christians to open their eyes and ears, to recognize how their beliefs and patterns and habits communicate what they valued and what they worshipped.

Today, how we live and move in the world with others makes all the difference as we, like Paul, strive to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Everything else is secondary. Amen.

We Are (Not) Scandalized

1 Corinthians 1.18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sister: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 

I worked hard on the sermon.

I mean, I worked really hard on the sermon. 

At one point I had, on my desk, three different commentaries, a collection of Christian poetry, two Biblical atlases, and my Greek New Testament. I must’ve written three versions of the sermon before I finally felt like it was complete before and I saved the document and patiently waited for Sunday.

And Sunday came.

I walked down the center aisle tightly gripping the sermon in my hand while the congregation sang around me. I sat dutifully throughout the service, listening to the different lay people playing their parts, and when the time came to preach I ascended into the pulpit, took a deep breath, and preached my heart out.

I used my hand emphatically, lowered my voice when I wanted everyone to hang on the words, and I ended with as large and as booming of a voice as I could muster.

When I sat down I had to wipe my sleeve across my forehead because I worked up a sweat.

After the service, I stood in the narthex waiting to shake hands with those in attendance that morning and was feel rather proud of my effort. 

A tall gray-haired gentleman was the first to walk over that morning, and I’ll never forget what he said, “Son, that sounded nice and all, but you used too many of them big seminary words and not a one of us understood not one thing you said.”

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There’s something interesting going on in the budding Corinthian Christian community. Sure, Paul’s already proclaimed grace upon all who receive his letter, and he’s warned them about breaking off into different factions, but here, before we even get to the second chapter of the letter he addresses what we might call, status consciousness. And notice, I’m still falling prey to the temptation to use bigger words than necessary!

It’s not just about who each of the early disciples follow, but to which class each person belongs. (As if people belong to certain classes)

In our minds when we think of class divisions today we rightly consider economic disparities, or even geographical placements, but one that we often ignore (to our detriment) is the division of education. There were some who proudly proclaimed their educational prowess while putting others down and it was starting to create major rifts in the community. 

“I know more than you do,” or “I’m smarter than you,” become more than childish attacks and take on a whole new version of the in crowd and the out crowd. 

Whereas Jesus comes to show us how we were once all in the out crowd, and we are all now in the in crowd.

Paul puts it this way: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debtor of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

In other words, “What makes you think you’re so smart? None of this is smart! God has made the wisdom of the world into foolishness! The religious elite call for signs and the secular folk want wisdom, but we proclaim a crucified man, dead on the cross. This will always be a stumbling block to the religious and foolishness to those outside the faith.

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Now the challenge before us, regarding this text, is nearly impossible – imagine, if you can, having never heard of Jesus or his cross. Imagine, challenging as this might seem, that you encounter someone in your life, perhaps a friend or a neighbor or even someone in your family and they tell you, “The most powerful being in all of the creation, chose to become like us, to dwell among us, and then when the right time came he was executed for all to see, and then three days later he rose from the dead.”

It’s difficult to take a step back from all of this, from a sanctuary adorned with cross, and hymns with language about the cross, and to consider how confounding the cross is. 

Or, to put it in a Corinthian context, it is scandalous.

That’s the word for us today, that’s the thing we cannot ignore, how scandalous it all is. Our English Bibles, of course, render it as foolishness a la the foolishness of the Gentiles, but in Greek the word is SKANDALON. 

Even in their boasting, those that had reason to boast, Paul reminds them that all of their bragging is for nothing because the word of the cross, the truth of Christ’s work, has nothing to do with our own intelligence, or our own wisdom, or our own work.

That scandal is difficult to approach – it is challenging because everything about the crucifixion from the details about the responsible parties to the words offered by those who witnessed the event carry little to no redeeming religious features. 

It is not an uplifting moment even though Jesus is lifted up. Which is strange when we consider just how much of our faith and all that we do as Christians is tied up with inspirational uplift and attempts at making us feel better whether we want to or not. 

So much of what I learned in school, the schooling that was required for me to become a pastor, was all about speaking the right words to make things right in your lives. It was about pushing lay people, you people, to be more faithful. It was about helping each of you to see all that you needed to do in order to find Jesus.

And yet, the scandal of the cross is scandalous precisely because it stands as a stark reminder that we are messed up, and Christ come to us anyway.

It is a reminder that no matter how smart we are or how dumb we are, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how virtuous or sinful, Christ comes to us anyway.

A few years back one of my dearest friends and a fellow United Methodist pastor (and godfather to my son), made it through 8 rounds of chemotherapy to treat his incurable cancer. The suffering involved was such that when he was told that they could no longer see any signs of his tumor he didn’t believe them. That is, until they reminded him that the cancer was still in his bone marrow and would never full be gone. 

He would, and still does, rely on what they call maintenance chemo in hopes that the cancer will be kept at bay.

In the wake of receiving the good news that sounded like bad news but was actually good news Jason, that’s his name, articulated something strange about the whole experience.

He said that even though learning he had cancer meant mourning the loss of the life that he had and the loss of the future he envisioned, so too, paradoxically, finding out that he wasn’t going to die quite yet meant mourning the loss of the life he’d found while living with cancer.

Basically, he kind of enjoyed having the cancer.

As crazy as that sounds, there was a reason for feeling that way. You see, while undergoing those months of chemotherapy and the constant fear about losing his life before he expected to, he discovered that he had his theology backwards. For far too long he had believed, and to some degree articulated, a faith that required people to grow closer to God, a faith in which Jesus suffers for our sins and that’s it.

But what Jason discovered in his cancer was that Jesus joins us in our suffering, that its not up to us to grow closer to God because God is already closer to us than we are to ourselves, and that no matter what we’re going through, no matter how bleak or frightening or terrifying, God is there in it.

In church terms we call it A Theology of the Cross.

Paul would call it the scandal of the cross. 

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Today we might talk about how the cross is a sign of how Jesus saves us from our sins, but what Paul, and Jason, would have us consider is that the cross is where the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ meets us.

The cross is where God meets us in our own lives. In all of our suffering, in all of our sins, in our shames and pains. 

And that is downright scandalous because it rubs against so much of what we’ve been taught to think and speak. If we’ve left church feeling guilty for all the things we should have done, for all the things we left undone, then we’ve missed the scandal of the cross. The scandal is that we don’t have to do anything. Because Christ does the everything we could not and would not do for ourselves.

And even more scandalous is the fact that God in Christ continues to meet us not in the mountaintops of our achievements, not in our theology degrees or perfectly performed prayers, not in our miraculous morality, but in the moments that frighten us and scare us the most.

Paul writes to the Corinthians in hopes of knocking them down a peg or two, he points to the scandal of the cross and reminds those who call themselves Christians that we really have nothing to boast about. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. No amount of education or status or health can fix that fundamental problem within us. Therefore, confronting the scandal of the cross compels us to reorient ourselves into the shadow of the cross. 

All the things we lift up, right education, economic success, perfect health and perfect bodies, have nothing to do with the scandal of the cross. It simply is what it is.

The cross has always been the focus of Christianity. The cross embodies all of what makes the Good News good. And for as long as it has been the object of our worship, it has also caused offense and has been scandalous. Here within the context of our own country, we tend to push the cross out to the margins, away from view, because we prefer a more upbeat and earned and triumphalist version of faith. 

This is, perhaps, because we are so obsessed with ourselves and what we deserve and how hard we’ve worked. We are moved by consumption and instant gratification. We lift up the healthy and the wealthy as the paragons of virtue and idealism. And, the more we do this, the more the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the celebrities of our culture become that which we idolize, and we ignore the plight of the sick, weak, lonely, and poor.

The word of the cross, that which confuses the religious and the irreligious alike, calls we who follow Jesus to embrace the struggle of life, to never turn a blind eye to those around us, and to remember that Christ meets us in the midst of our sins.

It’s scandalous. Amen.

We Are (Not) United

1 Corinthians 1.10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

The church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.

One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.

By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?

Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.

One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.

The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.

We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.

It doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?

Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.

The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.

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The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!

I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?

We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. 

Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.

Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone. 

There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.

But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!

It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.

It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.

Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them? 

There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!

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But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.

Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.

But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing. 

2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.

The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days. 

The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again. 

Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.

We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.

Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.

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The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today. 

The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.

We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic. 

Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.

But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.

Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.

He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.

This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.

We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.

That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.

We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.

It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.

We Are (Not) Accepted

1 Corinthians 1.1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Do you ever feel like things couldn’t get worse?

Natural disasters across the globe keep ravaging particular communities.

Political discourse and partisan rhetoric are dividing families and friends and churches.

It’s becoming ever more expensive to live and yet wages continue to stagnate.

Things just feel so broken.

Here in the US we are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get poorer. So much so that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion – it is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We are currently spending more money on national defense every year than we are on all of our programs of social uplift combined – when weapons become more important than people it is clearly a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

In ways big and small we are perpetuating a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives – the price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction. 

Now, before we go on, I want to be clear that most of what I just said is not original to me, I didn’t sit down this week and pull those thoughts out of thin air. Most of what I just said actually came from another preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever heard of him?

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Across the country, countless students will have the day off from school tomorrow in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and rightly so. He was a man committed to a vision of the kingdom that others refused to see, and it cost him his life. But one of the things that we forget, here in 2020, is that shortly before his assassination, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Though he is remembered as a bastion of freedom and equality, 2/3 of the country opposed his work and words the year before his death.

It’s hard to remember this, for those of us old enough to do so, because today everybody loves Dr. King. Partly because we’ve sanitized his message, and it’s a lot easier to love someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead. 

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice to the powers and principalities in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and rampant poverty. 

But we’re far more content with simply remembering his speech about having a dream of a different future. However, that future (which we are still yearning for) is not possible without transformation. His life, and death, is an ever present reminder that things cannot merely remain as they are.

Grace is messy.

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Each of Paul’s letters begin with a blessing on the recipients of the epistles with “grace”. Even to the famously fractured Corinthians, Paul begins by saying, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Grace is one of those all too important words in the church and, frankly, it’s a word we throw around all the time without thinking or talking about what it actually means.

Sometimes when I hear about grace, and even when I talk about it, it comes off like some nebulous gas that’s floating around affecting various people as they breathe it in.

Which, to some degree, is true. But grace is about a whole lot more than that.

The arrival of Jesus Christ into the world, mediating a new reality with God and God’s creation is a gift. It is all part of this cosmic plan for unending communion and it frees us from our own slavery to sin and death. It comes in spite of of our earnings and deservings and is made available to all without cost. Grace is, in every sense of the word, a gift. 

We have been gifted with a rescue from something and regathered into something we call communion.

But this gift we call grace runs counter to how we so often think about gifts today. Namely, when we receive something for nothing we almost always respond by immediately planning how to repay the gift. We want to out-gift the gift-giver. We live under the tyrannic rule of reciprocity such that we must always make the scales even again, even if it is outside of our ability.

But in the early church, grace was not about repaying what could not be repaid – grace was a reality. 

It both named the concrete gift of Jesus for the world, along with the generosity of God who sent him. And yet, it was not confined to some idea about who Jesus was, it was a lived reality in and through the ways people lived. 

The early church community gifted among themselves things like food, and money, and clothing, and healing to those who needed it the most. And they did so without keeping some sort of ledger about who owed what – it was simply done and thats it.

So whatever the gathering of Christians looks like today, it is supposed to look like a community of grace.

The gathering of disciples we call church are called to lives of generosity that is so obvious and known that only a God generous enough to give his only Son for an evil and sinful humanity can explain it. 

Grace, understood as such, changes everything, including us.

Or, to put it another way, we can’t remain what we once were.

There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about how God loves you just the way you are. Which, though true, is a denial of the power of grace working in and through us. 

The letters of Paul and the stories of Jesus show us that there is more to grace than simply being accepted for who we are. And, no doubt, we are accepted – after all, grace abounds. But we are now in a kingdom bound by that grace which means we have been changed.

Can you imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. work would’ve have looked like without a call to change? What good is a dream of something new if only we stay committed to the past? 

Here’s where grace gets messy: Grace is a gift, given for free. We don’t have to change or do anything before receiving it. And, we don’t have to do anything or change after receiving it. Paul will remind the good Corinthians about this – grace is less about out need to change and more about how God is already in the business of changing us. 

Were it up to us alone to change, we wouldn’t do it. It is far easier to remain the same and hold on to the old visions of the past than it is to try embarking on a different journey. Our captivity to sin keeps us firmly planted instead of taking steps or leaps of faith. But, thankfully, God will not leave us to our own devices.

God is changing us.

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Now, if you’re anything like me, we don’t particularly like all this talk of personal development or change. All the “shoulds” and “musts” leave us exhausted. Which is why it’s of paramount importance to remember the the Kingdom of God isn’t conditional. It exists whether we participate in it or not, the empty tomb remains empty whether we change or not. And yet God is using all of the means at God’s disposal to show us that our lives are being reknit, even right now. 

The world, just like us, cannot remain as it is. God won’t allow it. God is faithful, even when we are not. God believes in us even when we can’t. God is working toward a vision of things not yet seen, and God is bringing us along for the ride.

We can resist it all we want, but God is on the move.

Which is all to say that, when properly considered, the kingdom is about more than acceptance. We are at war with the powers and principalities of this world that insist on making the last laster and the first firster. Our King of kings is fundamentally different – Jesus does not rule with an iron fist or with boots on the ground – our King rules from a cross.

What could be messier than that?

I started all of this today with talk of Martin Luther King Jr.’s forgotten quotes. He was radically committed to seeing a different world and, to some degree, knew it would cost him his life. In fact, the night before he was killed he delivered one of his most moving speeches. It was not about securing the right to vote for black individuals, nor was it on dismantling Jim Crow laws, but was actually about establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

He stood before a packed crowd that night and after speaking at length on the subject at hand he ended it all by saying this:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead. 

God’s grace is about being part of a kingdom the world doesn’t want – it’s about how God makes a difference and that difference means we are now different.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have been transformed through the waters of baptism and the meal at the table – we are made new.

God does not accept the current realities of the world, nor does God accept the banalities of evil that run all too rampant. But God believes in us, God will remain faithful, and the kingdom of God is at hand. We will get to the Promised Land.

What a strange and wondrous thing grace really is – for by grace we have been saved, and are being saved, even now. Amen. 

To Whom It May Concern

Romans 1.1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union. 

But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.

I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:

“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”

But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.

So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break. 

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.

But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong. 

To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.

Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.

We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved. 

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But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world. 

Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.

Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”

Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?

Paul didn’t have a choice.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.

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We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like! 

That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well. 

Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter. 

Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.

Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.

Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not. 

It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.

That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen. 

The Cross In The Manger

Romans 8.1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 

There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there. 

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:

A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.

One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.

And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away. 

And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.

And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.

Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.

There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.

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I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”

That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.

But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.

I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.

But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.

That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body. 

Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.

As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.

The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice. 

And the cross comes with judgment.

Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.

In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.

And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God. 

We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings. 

Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.

But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.

And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.

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This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. 

There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.

There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”

And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.

And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.

Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies. 

And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party. 

It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies. 

It’s the Gospel. Amen.