This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3.4b-14, Matthew 21.33-46). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including robust theology, circuity, abundant coffee, God’s Top 10, sinful clergy, Karl Barth’s Gottingen Dogmatics, sabbath observance, Pauline swagger, parabolic utterances, and enjoying the fruit of the vine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Like God Is Speaking
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We might not realize it, but we often “sing our faith.”
Well, at least we did back in the days we actually got together in-person for worship.
Nevertheless, in the United Methodist Church we take seriously the act of singing and how much it teaches us about who we are and who we are.
There are some hymns that, even if I just sing part of verse, you will probably be able to fill in the rest:
Jesus loves me this I know ______
Amazing Grace how sweet the _____
O come, o come, Emmanuel _____
Jesus Loves Me, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1860. I learned it from my great-grandmother who would sing it just about every time I visited her, it’s one of the de facto songs of Sunday school classrooms, and I can even remember it being used in Preschool as a way to get all of our attentions.
But Jesus Loves Me, for all of its lovely qualities, has only been around for 160 years.
Amazing Grace, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1779. It’s ubiquity cannot be overstated. I can’t think of a funeral I’ve done where it wasn’t the number one requested hymn – it shows up in the background of hit Television shows, and I’ve heard it quoted from the lips of more politicians than I can count.
But, even with all the amazing qualities of Amazing Grace, it’s only been around 240 years.
Ah, which brings us to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It’s one of the preferred songs for the season of Advent, it has been covered by bands from the likes of Pentatonix to Sufjan Stevens, and it was written in the 9th century.
It’s over 1,000 years old.
I mean, think about that for just a moment…
Christians have used these words to articulate our faith for a very long time.
The hymn is older than the United States, the printing press, and even Timbuktu!
And there’s something notable about Christian hymns and how they’ve changed over time. For, if you take a gander at O Come, O Come, Emanuel, the hymn is largely about Jesus, and only secondarily about us. That is, those who follow him.
But as the years and the centuries pass by, the hymns start to flip, they focus more on us and only secondarily about Jesus.
It’s why you can tune to a Christian radio station today and the subject of almost every song is us.
“I’m so in love with you Jesus!”
“Our God is greater, Our God is stronger!”
In our singing, we’ve become the subject of our own worship.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, written from behind bars, contains one of the most interesting elements of any of his letters: a hymn.
The so-called Christ Hymn is tucked away here in the second chapter and it predates Paul’s letter.
It’s older than the epistles, it’s older than the gospels, it’s a song the earliest Christians used to articulate their faith.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It might not sound as catchy as something you can experience on YouTube or on the Radio today, but it’s radical.
It’s meant to shock us, this little collection of verse that Paul shares with the Philippians. Most of us, however, barely respond to it at all because we’ve heard it all before.
But listen again to this: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Again, those lines aren’t original to Paul, in fact, the early Christians who put the hymn together got the words from Isaiah 45 which contains one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry.
Idolatry is whatever happens when we worship any of the little g gods in our life rather than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Idolatry is when we hold up a political candidate as if they will be the ones to save us.
Idolatry is when we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives so long as we can keep the economy stimulated.
Idolatry is when we are so wedded to the powers and principalities of this life that we no longer notice the sin we’re in.
So what is it that Paul does with this song against idolatry. Or, better put, what did the earliest Christians do with it? They stuck Jesus right in the middle.
They, to put it in theological terms, violated the Law with the power of the Gospel.
It’s as is Paul is saying, or perhaps singing, “Jesus knew that power and might aren’t things to be taken but instead given up. Jesus emptied himself of all things. Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich. Jesus gave up his royal robes for a servant’s towel. Jesus humiliated himself to the point of humility. Jesus blessed those who persecuted him. Jesus turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, and forgave no matter the cost. And because that who Jesus is, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
And that’s shocking – it’s shocking because the name that is above every name is Yahweh – I AM. It is the One who spoke from the burning bush to Moses, the one who delivered a people enslaved all the way to the Promised Land, the One who turned the world upside down.
Paul mics drops through the centuries this frighteningly Good News – The Lord is Jesus.
John Wesley, founder of this crazy thing we call Methodism today, said that if God wanted to, God could’ve been Sovereign. That is: God could’ve controlled us like puppets and made us do every little thing that God wanted. God could’ve smacked us into shape for stepping out of line or rewarded us with little prizes for making good choices.
But instead, Wesley said, God chose to be Jesus.
God chose to come across the great chasm between Creator and Creature to dwell among us in the muck and mire of life.
God took on flesh, in humility humiliated God’s self to come and be with us.
God became Jesus for us.
It happens a lot in my line of work – the unannounced drop by, the casual (but not really) phone call, the email filled with ellipses. Someone shows up in my life, offers a few remarks that really have little to do with anything, when they finally share what they’ve kept all bottled up.
A wife who’s been cheating on her husband.
An individual who fled the scene after a hit and run.
A kid who made one too many bad choices at a party.
And almost every one of those conversations ends the same way – with a question.
Having emptied themselves of the baggage, having confessed the condition of their condition, they then ask, “Do you think I’m a sinner?”
“Do you think I’m a sinner?”
And one of the great privileges of my profession is that I get to answer that question like this:
“Of course you’re a sinner… but so am I. And Jesus happens to loves sinners.”
What do we really think God is like? Is God angry with us, is God a totalitarian dictator who is willing to torture us into better behavior? Is God keeping a ledger of every little mistake we make in order to determine where we should end up in the end?
Or, is God like Jesus?
Is God the One who, in humility, takes on flesh just to welcome outcasts and sinners?
Is God the One who, time and time again, describes the Kingdom like a wedding feast to which all of the wrong kinds of people are invited?
God became what we are. That’s what the Christ Hymn is all about, it’s what Paul is banging over the heads of the disciples in Philippi – God became what we are.
It is in God’s unending graciousness that God travel into the far country, into the brokenness of this world, our world, which is not God and is so often against God. And God made, and makes, that journey to us, for us.
Jesus is God, says the hymn that has articulated the faith longer than any other hymn.
And, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones.
God says to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you,” even though scripture condemned her behavior.
God says to the sinning tax collector, and the murderer, and the fill in the blank, “I’m feasting with you tonight,” even though scripture calls them unclean.
God says to the thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though scripture claims the opposite.
God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, forgives those who haven’t a clue in the world and those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks and cavorts with the very people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.
Which is kind of the whole point.
God chose to die, even death on a cross, out of love for the sinners we are.
Contrary to how we often discuss it, both publicly and in secret, God doesn’t respond to the crosses we build in this life with more crosses. God doesn’t abide by an eye for an eye. Instead, God’s answer to our brokenness and our sinfulness is Easter.
And that is humiliating.
It’s humiliating because we don’t deserve it.
We worship a crucified God, hanging dead on the cross because we put him there.
And God comes back, to us!
Jesus, whose name is above all names, Jesus is the one to whom we owe our allegiance – the one we worship. Jesus is God. And God, knowing our sin, chose to be with us and for us.
That’s the faith we sing.
Not some version of our own progress toward better-ness. Not some repetitive chorus about where we become the subjects of our worship.
The faith we sing is that God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us. Amen.
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early fall. Families made their way from the parking lot to the church, children wore matching outfits, and the sanctuary windows were open to let in the cool air.
The preacher paced in his office, looking over his notes for the sermon entitled, “A Love That Forgives.” He was momentarily grateful that the children’s choir would be singing that morning and, no matter how his preaching landed, most people would be pleased to hear the little ones’ voices.
The Sunday school hour arrived and the adults went to their side of the building while the children went to their own. All in attendance that morning examined their Bibles, gleaned from God’s Holy Word, all while also sharing the local community gossip.
Shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, a group of girls were giggling in the basement restroom as they changed into their choir robes.
And that’s when the bomb exploded.
It shook the entire building and it propelled the little girls’ bodies through the air like rag dolls. A passing motorist was blown out of his car, and every single stained glass window in the building was destroyed save for one which displayed Jesus leading a group of young children.
It was Sunday September 15th, 1963. 57 years ago this week.
4 little girls from were declared dead on the scene. Another 20 people were injured by the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church would never be the same.
Martin Luther King Jr. would later describe the event as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So wrote Paul to the Philippians from his jail cell. This is one of the greatest declarations in all of Paul’s letters, and perhaps in the entirety of scripture. It cuts right to the heart of this thing we call faith – life and death are both centered wholly in Christ.
Whether we live or die we are with Christ.
In baptism we are deadened like Christ that we might be raised with Christ.
This, for Paul, is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and he has laid it all on the line in order to obtain it. He writes with such conviction, while a convict, because he knows Christ and him crucified. His life was turned upside down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and he now knows, deep in his bones while resting behind bars, that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him.
Paul, to put a finer point on it, has been assaulted by grace of God. A violent and merciful grace that knows no bounds.
When Paul writes of joy to the Philippian church, a community struggling under the weight of the world and opposition from the wider community, he does so because he has been confronted with a hope he didn’t deserve. He persecuted the early church, derided those who believed in a risen Messiah, and then was offered a position in the evangelism department!
He went from town to town and city to city sharing the Good News with people who had nothing but bad news. Which is why Paul writes of being comfortable with his fate whatever it may be. He knows he belongs to God whether he lives or dies.
And, knowing he doesn’t know what will happen next, he encourages the Philippians to rest in the knowledge that he cares for them deeply, just as God does. That regardless of outcome, God has already overcome the world.
Which is what leads him to the line that, if we’re heard this part of Philippians before, we might know the best: Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.
This solitary sentence, taken out of context, has been used on a great number of occasions to malign Christians for not being good enough. Pastors like me have stood in places like this telling people like you that you’re not living in a manner worthy of the gospel so its about time you started turning things around.
All that stuff.
And yet, Paul’s proclamation about living in a manner worthy of the Gospel is so much more subtle than all of that.
What we read in English as “manner of life” comes from the Greek word POLITEUESTHE (from which we get polis and politics) and it carries political overtones. While, on the surface, it might seem like Paul just wants the Christians in Philippi to behave themselves, he’s actually contrasting one form of citizenship with another.
Throughout the rest of the letter he will continue to hold these two different identities against one another and remind the church that the citizenship of the Christian community is of a higher order than that of Roman citizenship.
Faith and politics have never been easy to sort out and there’s always been disagreement about how they relate to one another.
For the Philippians, it was of crucial importance because everywhere they turned they were bombarded by the power of Rome whether it was through festivals, statues, calendars, coins, temples, and all sorts of other cultural phenomena.
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know the empire seems powerful and that there’s no way you can get away from it. And, perhaps there’s some truth to that. But as disciples of Jesus, if there is a conflict between your politics and your faith, your loyalty is to Christ and your heavenly citizenship its what’s most important.”
The faithful in Philippi, though they live on earth, are citizens of heaven. As inhabitants of a Roman military colony on the outskirts of the empire, they would inevitably come to find themselves at odds with the powers and principalities of the surrounding politics.
For us today, any talk of politics from the pulpit is enough to make us squirm with discomfort. We have been told, even from infancy, that the US was founded upon a separation of church and state which means, on a practical level, that some of us don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit.
Some of us get enough politics Monday thru Saturday that we want a little reprieve here on Sunday morning.
And yet, Paul implores the community of faith in Philippi, and therefore us today, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. To, as the Greek hints, live as if we believe our truest citizenship is with God and not country.
Do this, Paul says, so that whether I’m able to join you or not, I will hear that you remain firm in one spirit striving side by side for the sake of the Good News.
While the members of 16th Street Baptist church were preparing for worship 57 years ago, four white men drove over to the church and planted sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church in order to rain down murder and destruction.
All four of the men were members of the United Klans of America, an offshoot of the KKK, an organization that swears to uphold Christian morality!
It was according to their Christian convictions that they felt compelled to bomb and murder other Christians because of the color of their skin.
3 days after the bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the funeral for the 4 girls who were murdered. In it he said their deaths have something to say to all of us. “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politicians who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Paul says, “Live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
Hearing about the bombing of a church nearly 60 years ago can feel like the distant past. It can feel like we’ve moved on from that stained part of our history.
But things have largely stayed the same.
The last few months of protests have been a ringing reminder that things haven’t changed. And its not just the matters that dominate the news cycle, the unjust murders of black individuals at the hands of the police.
It’s so much more.
It’s in every fabric of our lives from the way pregnant black women die in childbirth at a far higher rate than white women, to black students being punished with higher severity than white students for making the same mistakes, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison.
And yet, even with all of that, a study was published this week by the Barna Group which found that 30% of Christians, that is people who have attended some form of worship in the last month and claim to strongly prioritize their faith, say they are NOT motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice.
Someone, that’s an increase from 2019 when 17% said they were unmotivated.
One might imagine that the last few months of racially motivated moments in this country might change Christians’ perspectives on racial injustice, but when you look at white Christians, the old patterns hold true.
And all of that is further problematized by the fact that more than a third of practicing Christians in the study cited religious leaders, clergy, as the most influential among a list of the type of leaders they are listening to about racial justice.
Contrary to how we, that is those of us who are white, might want things to go, the black church has never had the luxury of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke politically and faithfully when he implored those in attendance at the funeral for the four young girls to see that there would be work to do.
There is still work to do.
Live you life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.
Suffering for Christ will always raise questions about where our ultimate allegiances reside. As the Lord says, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Jesus and racism at the same time. We cannot serve God and white supremacy at the same time.
The life of faith is complicated.
It’s not just about receiving a list of to-do items and then heading out into the world – It’s about catching glimpses of how God has already overcome the world and living accordingly.
It’s not about feeling guilty for all the things we could’ve done – it’s about seeing that living in the light of grace means we cannot remain as we were.
It’s not about keeping our politics and our beliefs separate – it’s about recognizing how what we believe shapes how we behave.
Part of the complication is that we can’t live in a manner worthy of the Gospel – we will always do things we know we shouldn’t and we will all avoid doing things we know we should do.
But we can at least begin by admitting the sin we’re stuck in, and then asking God to help us out. Amen.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.
Hey, look, I’ll be the first to admit – the conditions… they’re not great.
At first I thought, maybe they were sending me to one of those white-collar crime prisons. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? They’re the prisoners where they send rich people who stole money from other rich people, where you get to go outside and play tennis a few times a week, have cable television in your cell, and see your family on the weekend.
But, yeah, that’s not the type of prison I’m in.
I thought they’d send me to a nicer joint than this one because I didn’t really do much to get sent here in the first place.
It’s true enough that I was warned in plenty of towns to keep the chatter below the radar. And, to some degree, I understood the concerns. But it’s not like I was setting up insurrections, or inciting violence, or destroying public property.
I was merely story-telling. It’s just that some people didn’t like the stories I was telling.
At the right time, God came in flesh to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Living, breathing, eating, sleeping, teaching, healing, all the good stuff.
And we hated it.
We hated the Good News because it ran counter to everything we’d been spoon-fed from birth. We thought we knew exactly what we would need to do, and then he shows up to tell us that he was doing it all for us, in spite of us.
Some of us responded by leaving it all behind to follow. Others, such as myself, became all the more zealous to stamp it out as quickly as possible.
But Jesus doesn’t quit.
He moved from town to town, giving people glimpses of a world they couldn’t even believe, and finally, when we’d grown tired of all his goodness, we decided to do something about it.
The whole, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’ got under our skin and we couldn’t let him remain – he threatened to disrupt all that we had grown so accustom to. So, we hung him up in a tree for all the world to see, and we killed him.
But, of course, this was to happen according to God’s strange workings in the world.
Because even though we killed God, God came back three days later, an empty tomb signified the flipping of the cosmos. And now we’re no longer in the world of our own design, but instead we’re living in the light and grace and mercy of God who destroyed death and canceled the power of sin.
God, believe it or not, set us free.
Anyway, they eventually caught me and locked me up for being a “threat to society.”
And, as I previously mentioned, though I was hoping for some nicer digs, I’m currently being held in a horrifying dismal cell. And, to make matters worse, they decided to chain me up to a new guard each and every day so I don’t “get any wild ideas.”
Maybe they heard about what happened to me when I got locked up before and the earthquake allowed me to escape…
Nevertheless, here I am. And, believe it or not, what has happened has actually served to advance the Gospel.
Now, I want to be clear: The fact that God brings good out of evil does not make evil good. The Lord works in mysterious ways, making evil to serve God’s purposes despite itself. In ways both small and large, in ways known and unknown, God has power over sin, evil, and death and is able to achieve God’s own purposes of grace and peace.
Think about it like the great reversal from Good Friday to Easter. That’s at the root of the whole Gospel story.
Jesus, hanging on a cross for the world to see, belittled and beaten and betrayed. There’s nothing good about crucifixion. And yet, God chose to use the sign of death to defeat death forever and ever.
Because that cross now stands empty to the sky, reminding those of us who follow the Lord that the tomb could not contain him, that he is still contending against the powers and principalities of this life, and that, in the end, love wins.
This is the way God works, contrary to how we might do it were we in charge of the whole operation.
The Lord dabbles in unexpected deliverances, in surprising turns of events, in providential happenstances. All of them are echoes of the great reversal that began that first Easter morning. They are foretaste of the world yet to come. They are the bread and the wine at the table, the undeserved invitation, the unmerited forgiveness.
They don’t always fit and fall when we want them to, but when God’s up to something, the best thing we can do is get out of the way and say “thanks.”
Consider my situation: Locked up for a minor offense, derided by some from the local community, and yet I still proclaim God’s grace and peace. Some might believe that my mission has stopped, or that no good can come from all this.
But whoever believes that has forgotten that God works in impossible possibilities – God makes a way where there is no way.
I want you to know that being here has actually helped spread the Good News, so much so that it has become known throughout the whole of the prison staff. And not only that, but my evangelism, that is sharing the Good News, in a place such as this has given others the boldness and the confidence to speak the Word wherever they may be.
Despite my chains, despite my present circumstances, the Gospel is spreading and I remain free as a slave to the Lord. My shackles have become yet another occasion for me to tell anyone with ears to hear about the differences between what the world does to us and what God has done for us.
I might be trapped in this place, but there is a joy in my heart – a joy that only comes from belonging to Jesus
Thanks be to God.
Now, as to how the Gospel has become known… Well, again, its partly a mystery.
I didn’t, contrary to what I’ve heard others do, frighten them with fire and brimstone. I didn’t tell them to shape up or ship out. I didn’t tell them that God will torture them forever and ever unless they confess Jesus as Lord.
There will always be those who proclaim Christ from different, and even wrong places. Some do so out of envy and rivalry while still yet other do so with the best intentions. There will come so-called evangelists who are only in it for themselves or their wallets and purses. And, finally, there will come some in the name of the Lord who want to make other believers suffer for their beliefs.
And in the end, what does it matter?
So long as Jesus is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, it makes little difference. In fact, if Jesus is proclaimed I will rejoice and I will continue to rejoice, because that’s the only thing that matters.
For what it’s worth: I happen to believe that the Good News should sound like Good News.
So, the other day, when a guard was complaining next to me about his own circumstances (not enough food for his family, fears about not measuring up to his family’s hopes and dreams, worry he will be punished by the gods for his infidelity), I told him the truth. No matter the condition of his condition, One has already come to take away the burdens of this life.
That, if his family is hungry, they might consider finding a local Ekklesia, that is, a gathering of those who follow Jesus, for they will give them food for nothing.
Or, if he is worried about his worth, the Lord sees him as he really is, the good and the bad together, and already decided he was worth the cost of the cross.
Or, if the thought of torment for lapses in morality are keeping him awake at night, he need only consider the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, already took and nailed the sins of the world to the cross and left them there forever.
But, I know other people in this line of work have other ideas about how to proclaim Jesus, and frankly some of them don’t like the way I do it at all.
If I may be so candid – There are tensions that exist within our community of faith, whether its in your city or in any of the others. Perhaps you already know how hard it is for a group of people called disciples to get along. If someone ever sets out to put a collection of the Scriptures together one day (What if they put these letters in? That would be kind of cool…) you’ll see how quickly people disagree about what it all really means.
I don’t want to make it seem as if everything is perfect all the time. And, if we don’t find a way to work together, some people in the future might get the bright idea to break up the church into denominations.
And even if all of that happens, if the church splinters, and arguments arise over the Word of God, all of that will still pale in comparison to what God has already done for you, me, and the world in the person of Jesus.
Nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, of course, do everything in our power to squirm and complain and set up stumbling blocks for ourselves and others, and we can make a hell of a mess in the process. But God is the one who both makes us and reconciles us. That means there is no way, literally, on earth or in hell, that we will ever be outside God’s graceful work in reconstituting the cosmos.
Or, to put it another way, if Jesus is truly proclaimed, what difference do our differences make?
There’s enough hardship and suffering in this world to argue over petty disagreements.
The Lord came to save the world, not beat it down into submission for perfect obedience.
The Lord died and rose again that we might have life, and life abundant, not anxiety about who’s the best teacher and best apostle.
The Lord turned the world upside down, the only thing we need to do is live in it.
So I rejoice, even behind these bars, and I will continue to rejoice! If I am delivered from this bondage, wonderful. But if not, I’ve already been freed from the greatest bondage of all – sin and death.
I thank you then for all your prayers and it is my eager hope and expectation that even through this Christ will be exalted now as always, whether I live or die.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God.
There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.
The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community.
At least, that’s the idea.
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.
Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.
However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.
Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.
Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes.
To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.
Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence.
The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”
The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.
And grace never stops coming.
It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve.
And we really don’t deserve it.
We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity.
But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.
That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.
According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.
And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.
Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.
Is peace simply the absence of conflict?
Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?
For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for.
Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.
The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).
God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.
Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country.
By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.
For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.
One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.
He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.
And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be.
But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”
Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.
Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.
For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving.
His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace.
Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped.
The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word.
And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.
And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.
Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good.
Jesus is our grace.
And that makes all the difference. Amen.
1 Corinthians 14.32-35
And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
We, the church, have been breaking one of God’s laws, and it’s high time for us to atone for our sin. Frankly, I can’t believe we’ve been so brazen to keep wantonly going on like this, but I guess we’ve been drunk on our own self-righteousness to do much of anything about it.
So, today, I’m going to get us all squared away so that we can get back on God’s good side.
We need to destroy the church bathrooms.
It’s as clear as day in scripture and if God says it, then it’s settled.
Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “What’s Taylor on talking about church bathrooms at a time like this? We haven’t even used the church bathrooms for 5 months?” While some of you are wondering, “What Bible has he been reading?”
Deuteronomy 23.12-14, a paraphrase – “You shall have an area outside the camp for you to take care of your bathroom business. Make sure you bring a shovel with you, and when you relieve yourself outside, cover up your excrement. God is with you, to save you from your enemies, therefore your place of worship must be holy, so that God may not see anything indecent among you.”
Look it up sometime.
So, after prayerful consideration, whenever we do reopen for in-person worship, we will no longer have bathrooms in the church buildings. We will, however, endeavor to construct some outhouses on the edge of our property for excrement disposal.
Have you ever read that passage from the Bible? Have you ever heard someone preach on it? Chances are, you haven’t. But in the 1880’s, here in the US, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of theological debate. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.
For some, the Old Testament rules about the Israelite encampments were just as valid for churches as they were for God’s wandering people. Therefore, some preachers stood up in their pulpits nearly over 100 years ago to fight against the growing trend of bathrooms in churches!
Today, of course, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t about what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design would enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit inside the building, but how many bathrooms should there be and where should they be situated.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it!
It’s a common refrain among Christian types though it can appear in different ways. “The Bible is clear about this…” is another similar expression, as is “We’ve got to follow the Bible.”
Years ago, in a Bible study, we were going through the appointed text for the day when a woman interrupted the conversation with a personal dilemma. She told us that her son recently came home with a tattoo on his arm and she was completely devastated. And I, being the young and naive clergy that I was (and still am) said something like, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a tattoo.”
To which she replied, “If God says it’s not allowed in the Bible, then the issue has been settled!”
I should have stopped right there and moved the conversation to another place, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Oh, so you don’t eat pork or shrimp or cheeseburgers? And you’re telling us about your son so that we can join you in stoning him to death this afternoon for disrespecting your wishes? And, you didn’t mean to wear those earrings today because you know the Bible forbids them as well? And, for that matter that polyester jacket you wore in today is also off limits, as is your husband’s clean shaven face!”
I repent, O Lord, for my unChristian Bible Study behavior.
This sort of extreme biblical literalism is wildly problematic, and basically impossible. If we strive to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be able to wear blended fabrics, sow two different kinds of seed in one garden, children who curse their parents would be put to death, and if you mowed your lawn on Sunday afternoon you would be put to death as well.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
It’s another one of those trite and cliche Christianisms that often float around in our conversations. When we get into debates and arguments with others about particular biblical concepts, like prohibitions against tattoos, watching movies about wizards, or any other number of things, someone is likely to take a verse out of content and use it like a bludgeon against the person they disagree with.
Because, you know, if God said it then it’s settled.
Or maybe there’s more to the Bible than the way we’ve been treating it.
Today, as I already noted, no one is worrying about whether or not to build a church with a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belittle the men in their congregations for trimming their beards, and we all neglect to adhere to certain passages all the while holding other passages over the heads of others.
The Bible is full of all sorts of rules and regulations that we pick and choose according to our own proclivities.
Our passage today comes from Paul first letter to the church in Corinth and he drops a line on the dozing Corinthians that makes (some of) us cringe today: “Women should be silent in churches.”
This, of course, is a line we willfully ignore/disobey regularly. Back in the days when we still gathered in-person for worship (remember?) we regularly had female liturgists who stood to read God’s Word for all of us, we’ve had at least 3 guest preachers in the last 3 years all of whom were women, and that’s to say nothing of the many times we’ve had women lead us in congregational singing.
However, there are churches who believe the language regarding the supposed subordination of women is the Gospel truth. In those churches, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible studies when men are present, and they are not allowed to do anything that would ever require them to speak in front of the gathered congregation.
Which, to be honest, is rather strange – even from a biblical standpoint. Paul certainly offers his opinion here in 1 Corinthians, and he does so in other letters as well, but the New Testament is filled with other examples that completely contradict Paul’s words. Women are noted as prophets, evangelists, and apostles, Paul even refers to Euodia and Syntyche as coworkers who struggled together with him in the ministry of the Gospel, and Aquila taught the ways of God among the earliest Christians.
And that’s not even mentioning the fact that without female preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
Contrary to the verse in question from Paul today, the Gospel (Good News in a world drowning in bad news) radically altered the position of women, elevating them to a partnership with men that was unparalleled in the first century.
And yet, the church, as a whole, has been remarkably slow in embracing the New Testament’s vision of mutuality among people regardless of any distinctions. Even within the New Testament, there is a vacillation between a vision of things not yet seen and a keeping things the way they are.
And its that dance, it’s the movement back and forth, that really stands at the center of the statement, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
Like the many apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking to us even today. But we aren’t just passive recipients of what it says, lifting it up like a weapon to be used against others. We ask questions of it. We pray for the wisdom and guidance to discern how it shapes our lives. We wrestle with the text and then, in community, we do the hard and important work of interpretation.
Paul might have something to say about women being silent in church, but many of us would simply not be Christians unless women were brave enough to stand and speak in churches.
The Bible might have more than 200 verses in support of slavery, but we recognize that slavery is incompatible with God’s kingdom here on earth.
We might read about doing our business outside the boundary of God’s holiness, but we don’t build churches without bathrooms.
The best way to do the work of interpretation is to be the disciples Jesus has called us to be – in short, we follow Jesus’ example.
Contrary to how we might imagine the Lord in scripture, Jesus did not adhere to the strict biblical literalism that is still found in some churches today. He had wildly different ideas and interpretations of Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly violated the Law of the Old Testament by eating with those deemed unclean.
Living as a Christian today is all about developing a lens by which we can encounter the strange new world of the Bible and proclaim it for this time and this place.
Even the Bibles to which we turn are themselves works of interpretation.
Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from the Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but the words we use can make all the difference.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s how the New Revised Standard Version renders John 3.16 – easily one of the most well known verses in all of scriptures. But what many of us do not know is that the word for “perish” in Greek is APOLLUMI and it can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, to be killed, or to be ruined.
Each of those different words can change the meaning of the text in ways both small and large and they are a product of interpretation.
Therefore whenever we take up a Bible, whenever we flip to a particular passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the words. And to make it all the more challenging, even the best translations leave us to continue the work of interpretation.
So, how do we do it?
Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our Bibles all by ourselves and decide we know exactly what God is saying, we don’t listed to a sermon and decide that the end all be all on the subject.
We interpret God’s Word in community.
We read from commentaries on scripture from those who came before us, we engage in Bible studies where iron sharpens iron and we come to know more than we would on our own, we send emails to our friends and pastor with questions so that we can come closer to the strange new world of the Bible.
And, we let Jesus help us interpret.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As God’s definitive Word, Jesus helps us understand the words within the Word. We read from both the Old and New Testaments through the lends of Christ and we can then do the good and sometimes hard work of wrestling with how these words continue to speak into our lives.
But that requires a whole lot more than, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
For, those who say “The Bible is clear” are those who have never really read the Bible. Reading scripture, the work of interpretation, is hard work. It calls us to become servants of the Word rather than masters of the text. And, frustratingly enough, that work never ends.
People have used God’s Holy Word with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery and racism. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward those who believe differently.
It has been used as a weapon over and over again.
So today, we, the people of God, who come to the text with fear and trembling witnessing to the fact that it gives life, we repent for the ways we have used it to take life away.
And with the courage of the Spirit we join together to say, “no more!”
“No more!” To the use of Scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized.
“No more!” To the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for being exactly who they are.
“No more!” To the backward ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.
“No more!” To God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.
I love the strange new world of the Bible. I fell in love with it as a kid sitting between my parents in the pews on Sunday mornings, I still fall in love with it every time I take it up and read. And I think what I love most about it is the fact that it is alive. It is not some dead book that demands to be kept in the past.
It is alive, and it gives life. Amen.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I’ve heard it more than a few times from more than a few people during this pandemic period.
Individuals forced to remain away from others so that the virus isn’t spread further and faster than it already has.
Families confined to their houses not knowing at all what “virtual education” will look like, let alone feel like.
Partners staring off into the distance at night not knowing what to do to pass the time.
And yet, we, that is most of us in the West, have access to more entertainment than ever before simply because of a device in our pockets, the infinite reaches of YouTube, or the seemingly never ending array of binge-able streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBOMax, etc.
And, the question is, are our lives better?
I, for one, am grateful for the existence of something like Disney+ these days. It has been a joy to go through a number of old Disney films with my kid, films I, myself, watched as a kid. But when I take a step back from the whole thing, it makes me wonder about how connected we are to all things all the time.
Moreover, without the remarkable advancements in technology no one would be able to read this devotional online, we wouldn’t be able to stream worship services from the comfort of our couches, and we wouldn’t be able to video conference with those we love.
But our connections are deceptive.
With the click of a button we can access more information than anyone ever has in human history prior. And, to make it even more complicated, we are creating content at an unfathomable rate – we create as much information every two days now as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.
And even though there is all this content, and we have access to it (and to one another), we believe we want to do and accomplish so many things but we’re mostly just spinning our wheels.
We want the newest and the fastest technologies because we want to have and use a power that we don’t need nearly as much as we think we do.
But we can no longer imagine a world without what we have.
Of course, all of this was bound to happen – faster connections to farther ideas and spaces. The power of technology often exceeds our real necessities of life and, in order to continue, technology must forever call forth new problems to fix and solve.
And there was no real way to prevent technology from becoming the crazy thing it is today. It gives us comfort and entertainment all the while providing anxiety and danger.
Yet, we should never accuse technology of “having no soul.” For, it is actually our own irrational desire for unending power that has no soul.
The real problem with modern technology is us.
St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The Christian conviction of non-conformity is rather plain in scripture and is rather missing in our preaching and teaching. Instead of witnessing to the difference that Christ makes, we want to make Christ like us.
Our non-conformist notions do not mean we have to throw away our phones or cancel our Netflix subscriptions, but they do mean we have to be mindful of how we use our technology and how much it shapes our worlds. For, technology is something we will forever consume assuming it will give us life. Technology is a sign to others (and to ourselves) about our status in the world. Technology promises a better world that, upon closer inspection, actually stays largely the same.
God, on the other hand, remains steadfast. God sees our insatiable desire for the next best thing and still chooses to march to the top of Calvary for us anyway. God has already made the world the better place in Christ Jesus.
It’s just that so many of us are so consumed by our technologies that we haven’t bothered to notice.
Romans 8.28, 31-39
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Everything happens for a reason. We say something like that to bring comfort to people in the midst of uncertainty, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances mostly because we don’t know what else to say. It is a remarkably common expression among Christian-types and it’s not in the Bible.
Years ago I received a phone call that a woman in my church was in her final moments. She had been suffering from a great number of chronic problems for the better part of two decades and most of her family had not expected for her to live as long as she did. We all stood around her bed together praying and sharing those final moments before she died.
A few days later, on the eve of her funeral, her now widower husband fell down the steps in front of their house after returning from the wake and was rushed to the hospital. He needed a few days to recover and we delayed his wife’s funeral until he was better. Eventually he sat in the pews with surrounded by his family and worshipped with the rest of us as we gave thanks to God for his wife.
After the burial and reception he returned to his now empty house complaining of our tired he was and after he went to bed, he never woke up again.
A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.
When I got the call about his death, having only seen him the day before, I rushed to the house to meet with the family who were still in town from the wife’s funeral. And one by one I watched and listened as every single family member exchanged a version of “everything happens for a reason.”
“God just needed another angel in heaven.”
“God wanted them to be married in heaven just like they were married on earth.”
“This was all part of God’s plan.”
And the more I heard it the more my blood boiled. But before I had a chance to blurt out something pastors aren’t supposed to say, one of the couple’s daughters beat me to it.
“That’s BS” she stammered.
Though she didn’t use the acronym.
“If this was all part of God’s plan, then why did God take away my Mommy and Daddy so quickly? Why would God do that to me?”
And that’s when the whole room turned to me, the pastor, the so-called expert on God.
So I said, “If there is a reason for everything, if God killed both of them on purpose, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.”
When we throw out trite and cliche sentences like, “everything happens for a reason” it puts all of the responsibility of every single little thing entirely upon God.
It makes God into a monster.
The author of car crashes, incurable childhood cancers, and unending wars.
And yet, more often than not, it is our go-to expression when we don’t know what else to say.
If there are two things that we, as human beings, just can’t stand they are mystery and silence. It’s no wonder therefore that when we face a situation that has no explanation we get as far away from mysterious silence as we possibly can by saying something we think is helpful. We both want to have an answer for every question and we want to be able to get out of uncomfortable moments when we don’t know what to say.
The problem with all of that is we think we’re helping someone when we’re actually making things worse.
Anyone who claims that everything happens for a reason are those who believe God wills every single horrific death, every incurable diagnosis, and even something like the Coronavirus. They see and imagine God as some great puppeteer in the sky instituting every possible contingency such that it must be this way at all times no matter what.
And if that’s true, then every rape, every murder, every act of child abuse or neglect, every war, every storm or earthquake, are all part of God’s plan.
To those who believe that is the case, the response from the daughter whose parents died should suffice.
In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the unimaginable tsunami that wrecked South Asia back in 2015. The article was focused on a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of all his efforts, which included swimming in the rolling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to save his wife or any of his four children from drowning in the waters. The father recounted the names of his children and then, overwhelmed by his grief, sobbed to the reporter, “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here… he will save us” but I couldn’t do it.”
David Hart wonders, in his book, If you had the chance to speak to the father in the moment of his deepest pain, what would you say? Hart then argues that only idiots would have approached the father with trite and empty theological expressions like: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s cosmic plan” or “It’s okay this was God’s design” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Most of us, Hart believes, would have the good sense not to talk like that to the father. And then he takes it one step forward. “And this should tell us something. For if we think is shamefully foolish and cruel to say things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
And to take it one step even further, if we mustn’t say things like that to such a father, then we ought never to say them about God.
St Paul wrote to the early church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Which, for many, justifies the desire to say “everything happens for a reason.”
And yet we so often forget that this verse is the beginning of Paul’s big crescendo to one of the texts we use most often at funeral – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What we miss in that profound and powerful declaration is that there are powers and principalities contending against God in this life.
That is, death is something that is trying to separate us from God, but God wins in the end.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated in Christ Jesus, and will ultimately destroy forever in the New Jerusalem.
That is, to put a fine note on it, the whole point of the Gospel in the first place.
It would then be nothing but ridiculous for God to delight or even ordain the deaths of those whom he loves for it would run counter to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
God does not want bad things to happen to us. But bad things do happen in this fallen and fallible world we find ourselves in. We, all of us, make choices we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. We contribute in ways both big and small to the tremendous suffering in the world. From delighting in being able to purchase a banana whenever we want from the grocery store (a banana that requires low waged work, an absurd amount of fossils fuel, and harmful chemicals to make it to our plate) to texting while we drive (which distracts us from the kid running into the street to grab his wayward basketball) to a great number of other scenarios.
Some of the suffering of the world is willed, but not by God. It is willed by us in our relentless pursuit of whatever we think we deserve.
And yet a fair amount of suffering in the world exists not because of us or God, things just happen without explanation.
And when those things occurs, whether willed by human beings or random events in creation, we do well to close our mouths and rest in the knowledge that God has defeated death.
Does that erase death’s sting here and now? Of course not, death always hurts.
But as Christians, we know how the story ends, we know that those we lose in life will be waiting for us at the Supper of the Lamb surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us.
The “for good” that God works to achieve is the proclamation that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That even in our suffering, even in our deaths, God is with us.
Look, I hear it a lot in my line of work, people showing up at the church or calling me on the phone to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?”
The loss of a child. The loss of a job. The loss of health.
And for as many times as I have heard questions about God’s purposes behind the purposeless moments in life, I’ve heard from just as many people wondering, “What can I possibly say to someone in their suffering, in their loss?”
Sometimes the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. As hard as it might be to sit with someone else in their pain and in their suffering, just listening to them is far better than trying to fill the time with trite and meaningless aphorisms. At the very least, it’s the most faithful thing we can do.
Life is hard and all sorts of things happen without explanation. I know that might not sound very pastoral, but it’s true. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came to the church one morning in your grief or suffering or pain, and you got down on your knees to pray to God when all of the sudden you heard a voice booming from the heavens declaring, “I”M DOING THIS TO YOU ON PURPOSE! THIS IS PART OF MY PLAN!”
If that’s who God is, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Thankfully, that’s not who God is. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. God is the author of salvation and not the dictator of death. God is the one who would do everything, and already did, to make sure that nothing, truly nothing, could ever separate us from the his divine love.
Our hope is not contingent on finding reasons to explain everything that happens – instead our hope is built on Christ who shows us in his life, death, and resurrection that God is with us, always.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
For I am convinced, like Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s the gospel.
Jesus is the reason that even when things happen, we are not abandoned.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 17.1-7, 15, Romans 9.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Biblical character identification, new names, God’s marks, pentecostal prayers, divine time, false witness, Pauline anguish, faithful food, better education, and bigger tables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Lie
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.
But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.
It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.
Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).
We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.
Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.
And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.
That is, all of them.
Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”
Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!
No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do.
At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.
We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ.
And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.
Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace.
And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!
Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.
Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.
Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.