Impossible Possibility

1 Timothy 2.8-14 

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Galatians 3.19-28

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.

We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.

It was awful.

It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.

And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”

It was perfect.

I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon. 

It was perfect.

But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”

I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.

Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.

The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do. 

I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.

But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible. 

Well, sort of.

There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.

Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy: 

Men should pray, Paul says. 

Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.

Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.

Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.

Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

Wow.

Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.

And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…

However, scripture says other things as well.

Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.

And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible. 

And the Gospels are no different! 

Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.

Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!

Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.

And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.

And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.

And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.

It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.

Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.

God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.

It’s really as simple as that.

And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.

Which leads us to Galatians.

Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.

Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us. 

Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.

The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each. 

In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way. 

The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it. 

Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.

But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.

Love

Philippians 1.3-11

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 to 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 praise of God.

Love is terrible. It hurts, it’s scary. It makes us do all sorts of things we shouldn’t – it leads to judgment and pain and doubt. Love makes us weird and selfish and annoying. It keeps us awake at night, it distracts us from the rhythms of life, it stings.

Love is the one thing everyone wants and we’ll go through hell to get it.

Love isn’t easy. It requires a commitment that goes beyond what anyone would consider normal. We enter into love knowing full and well that we know nothing of what we are doing. Love is hard work. 

And love requires a tremendous amount of hope. 

It requires hope because none of us really know what we’re doing when we enter into it – it’s something we have to figure out along the way. 

Love is terrible. And yet, love is just about the most important thing in the world.

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is full of love. I mean, listen to how he butters up the budding little community of faith: I thank 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.

Translation: You’re just the most special little church I ever did see.

Paul writes with confidence that the Lord will bring to fruition all of the Good News made manifest in their community because (and this is the key) God is the one who does the work.

Sure, Paul will praise the people for keeping him in their prayers while he, himself, is imprisoned. He will boast of their faith in the midst of tribulation. He will even long to be reunited with all of them. But only because the compassion of Jesus Christ has changed them and him forever.

And then Paul has the gall to write: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to 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 praise of God.”

I love Paul, I love his epistles, I love his theology, I even love his language. But reading this makes me wonder if Paul really knew what it was like to be among the people called church.

I mean: A church with love that overflows? That sounds great to me, but the only problem is the fact that church is filled with sinners like you and me.

Our slogan might be open hearts, open minds, open doors, but we definitely keep the doors locked, we’re pretty stuck in our ways of thinking, and we certainly have a penchant for judgment even though someone once told us: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

The church isn’t a bunch of good people getting better – instead, we’re a bunch of bad people dealing with our inability to be good.

And, of course, this can become manifest in a number of ways. A preacher like me can stand in a place like this only to wax lyrical about how badly you all need to stop being so bad. I can end every sermon with a list of exhortations on how to finally become the best versions of yourselves. And, should the occasion call for it, I could drop some of that good ol fire and brimstone to whip you all into shape.

But here’s the rub: that kind of church stuff never ever works. At least, not really.

A buddy of mine tells this story about how, when he was a teenager, he went to a church youth conference. Big stage with musicians and altar calls and all that. And on the final night of the conference, right at the pinnacle of the final worship service, the fire alarm off. A brief terror ensued as those in charge frantically ushered a bunch of screaming teenagers out of the building and the streamed out in the parking lot. And there, scattered among the spaces were life boats.

Any rational human being might pause and wonder why, but not a bunch of frightened youth. The adults started yelling at the kids to get into the lifeboats. And a moment later the alarm stopped, and someone shouted from a loudspeaker: “Look around, there aren’t enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone… Are you ready to really give yourselves to Jesus?”

The fear of that moment might’ve led some of the teenagers to something, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus revealed in the strange new world of the Bible.

Shame is a powerful thing. Like love, it can make us do all sorts of crazy things.

But the church doesn’t exist to bring more shame into the world. In fact, the church exists to proclaim grace, which is the antidote to shame.

Shame teaches us that love is only for those who deserve it and earn it. Shame is the burden of perfection whether it is moral, spiritual, or something in between. Shame destroys us, it eats away at the very fabric of our being because it’s always dangling in front of our eyes, like a carrot on a string, telling us that we are never enough.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same, nor does Jesus comes to bring us shame; Jesus comes full of grace. His very being in the world, born as a baby in Bethlehem, runs completely counter to the idea that only when we get it right do we get to see the Lord. The grace of our Lord is given freely before we have a chance to earn it or deserve it because we never will.

According to the strange new world of the Bible the beginning of the Christianity journey is receiving love.

Think about that for a moment. Faith doesn’t begin when we make some sort of change, or public affirmation. Faith doesn’t kick in when we finally get our acts together. 

Faith begins when we begin to see that God’s love precedes all things. 

And yet, sometimes even God’s love is terrible. God’s love is terrible because it compels us to look at ourselves hard enough to see how wild it is that God would love us at all.

Or, to put it another way, if God loves us as we are, then we (on some level) have to come to grips with who we really are, and that’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time.

Consider the desire to take a holiday picture of your family, or the outfit you want to wear to a holiday party, or any other number of examples from this time of year – it’s all about making sure only the best of us is seen, and the worst of us is hidden. At least, that’s true on a physical level, but we also do similar things with our conversations, in our relationships, in our work. 

We are all experts at wearing the masks of our own making such that we, and everyone else, don’t have to see us for who we really are.

But God knows exactly who we are and God loves us anyway.

How odd of God!

In the life of faith we flourish not because we love, but because we are loved.

When we begin to see, and experience, the divine love called Jesus Christ that never ever stops, that never runs dry, that endures all things (to borrow another line from Paul) then we encounter the building blocks of the faith and the cosmos.

We are made to be loved.

In my line of work, you always have to keep your eyes and ears open for the ways the Spirit moves in the world. Whether it’s a show, or a book, or a painting, or a conversation, it’s all about tuning in to God’s frequencies because you never know what you can use in a moment like this.

Well, it’s Advent time which, for most people, means it’s Christmas time. And one of the joys of this time of year is returning to movies about this time of year. 

And one of my all time favorites, is Home Alone.

I know that, while growing up, I loved Home Alone because I rejoiced in the ways that Kevin McAllister was able to booby trap his house, the holiday soundtrack was perfect, and because it had the perfect amount of 90’s humor. 

But now I love the film because it’s all about grace.

Whether or not you are actually doing it, I can sense the furrowed brows among the congregation, so let me attempt to prove my point…

For those of you unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was, and is, Home Alone, here’s a brief synopsis:

Kevin is a the youngest sibling in a family that fights and argues the night before flying to Paris for the holidays. In the scuffle to make the flight in time, Kevin is left home alone, and his parents don’t notice their mistake until their halfway over the Atlantic.

Kevin rejoices in the freedom from his family but discovers that the neighborhood is under the threat of two criminals who are casing houses for a little B&E. 

Meanwhile, Kevin’s mother frantically seeks out ways to return to her abandoned child and the usual Christmas chaos ensues. 

Kevin defends his home with booby traps and works to have the criminals arrested.

And then, perfectly, on Christmas morning, the mother returns home and the two reconcile and embrace.

Great movie.

And here’s the grace:

There is a short scene right before the climax of the film when, on Christmas Eve, Kevin enters a nearby church (which, for those of you keeping score, is a United Methodist Church!). He sits and listens to a children’s choir practicing for their evening performance when his spooky neighbor Old Man Marley approaches him.

Kevin, terrified, shrinks in his pew, but the man wishes Kevin a merry Christmas.

They talk about why each of them are there.

Kevin feels bad about how he treated his family.

Old Man Marley feels bad about how he is estranged from his own son, and how the only way he can hear his granddaughter sing is to come to this practice, but that he’s not welcome later.

And then he says: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing… deep down you will always love them, but you can forget that you love them. You can hurt them, and they can hurt you.” 

To which Kevin replies, “You should call your son.”

“What if he won’t talk to me?”

“At least you’ll know. Then you could stop worrying about it. Then you won’t have to be afraid anymore. Will you do it?”

“We’ll see what happens. Merry Christmas.”

It’s so short, and I’m sure its not the scene that everyone remembers most, but to me it’s the most important. These two strangers, reeling from the overwhelming power of love to hurt and heal, heal one another with offerings of grace.

And, recognizing that it is a movie, Kevin is reconciled with his mother and family and then looks out the window to see Old Man Marley doing the same thing with his own family. It’s beautiful stuff.

And yet, life isn’t a movie. Sometimes that hoped for reconciliation doesn’t happen.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

The church exists in the time in between, the time being, as the poet Auden put it. We keep watch for the ways in which God’s love might overflow even for us such that God’s love might flow out from us to others. But even when we don’t experience the kind of love we yearn for, we also have this promise: There is a place where God will always meet us. 

God is present in this sacrament. God meets us here, where we are, in the midst of our sins, not in our successes. God knows our mistakes and our short-comings. And in that knowledge God says, I am giving myself for you. For you! 

And this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more!

Because God love us! We are made to be loved. Amen. 

Making Melody

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The priest sat in the deep of the ship as the storm raged above. He tried his best to remain steady as the ship rocked back and forth with every gust of wind and the waves were relentless. Supplies and cargo rolled in every direction and panic was grabbing hold of the passengers.

A nearby mother with a tiny infant nestled in her arms begged the priest to baptize her baby right then and there in fear that they would not survive the storm. Everywhere he looked all he saw was terror and fear.

And then, strangely enough, he heard singing coming from a group of Moravians, German Christians. Meanwhile the main mast split in two but the sound of the tiny little choir reverberated and resonated deeply in the wooden hull of the ship.

Days later, when the sun finally returned in the sky, the priest found the group of singers and asked why they were not more afraid during the storm.

They replied, “We are not afraid to die. We are prepared because we know God will never let us go.”

Afterward the priest was deeply moved and wrote in his journal: This was the most glorious day that I have yet seen.

It was 1736 and the priest’s name was John Wesley.

Music had always been a part of Wesley’s life but something in him changed that day. Today, the people called Methodists are those who know what it means to sing our faith in large part because of what took place on a ship long ago.

Music is a truly remarkable thing. It can make us laugh, it can make us cry, it can bring forth emotions we didn’t even know we had access to.

If someone puts on the Vince Guaraldi Trio I am immediately transported to Christmas Time Is Here, Charlie Brown, and all the other things that make that season the most wonderful time of the year.

If someone starts spinning some Supertramp or Queen or Fleetwood Mac then my entire extended family will start flipping tables and chairs until we’ve made enough space for a dance floor.

Even Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 20th century, when asked by a student what he learned after an entire career in theology he responded: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

Music is powerful stuff, and Paul tells us that being filled with the Spirit necessarily results in the making of melody.

Years ago, while on a mission trip to New Orleans, I was tasked with spending the afternoon in a nursing home and proctoring a session of Bingo. The youth and I tried our best to liven up the place a little bit but the whole thing was tragic. Residents of the memory care unit were staring off into space, using the laminated cards to fan themselves, and totally unconnected from just about anything.

Until we found a forgotten and worn out hymnal on a shelf in the corner. I pulled the youth close and we started singing all the great hymns we knew without even really needing to look at the hymnal.

By the time we made it halfway through The Old Rugged Cross, every eye in the room was on us, and when we rounded the second to last verse of Amazing Grace some of the residents were singing with us, and when we landed the last note of Great Is Thy Faithfulness, more than a few people had tears in the eyes.

Including the orderlies and assistants who later told us that it was the first time they heard many of the residents actually say anything at all.

The science is all there about how our neural pathways change, literally rewrite themselves, whenever music is performed or consumed. Music changes things and gives us access to things we otherwise wouldn’t have.

But this is nothing new.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible we discover how music rests at the heart of what it means to be connected with the divine. Moses and the Hebrew people sing songs of praise after being delivered from slavery to the Promised Land, David plays the lyre in order to calm the anxieties of King Saul, and Paul and Silas are in the middle of singing when an earthquake sets them free from captivity.

Music is often the gateway to unanticipated blessings.

Paul writes near the conclusion of his letter to the church in Ephesus about being careful about how they live and to make most of the time they’ve been given. This is not merely a call to “seize the day” but more a recognition that life is a gift and that we have much to be grateful for. 

When the Moravians were singing on the boat – they weren’t being fools living in denial of the situation they found themselves in, they were not naive. Instead they held fast to the promise made to them in Christ that nothing in this life, not even a storm upon the sea, can ever separate us from the love of God.

It’s all too easy to take most of Paul’s letters and turn them into an exhortative exercise. As in, someone like me will stand in a place like in order to get people like you to start behaving yourselves. Which is all good and fine, but that’s not actually what the letter is doing.

Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesians to do this that and the other in order to be Christians, but rather he tells them to do all these things because they are Christians. And that’s an important distinction. Paul urges them to make the most of their time, and put away foolishness, and sing with one another not to become Christians but because they are Christians.

All of the stuff we do as Christians, from praying to singing to serving isn’t to get somewhere with God, or to earn God’s favor; we do these things because, in Christ, we already belong to God. Living like this is just what kind of happens when grace grabs hold and refuses to let go; we can’t help but make melody together.

So lets do it…

The first music was percussive. Drums were used to tell stories and eventually communicate over distances of space and time. But somewhere along the line, it was discovered that if you changed the tightness of a drum it would create different pitches – pitches that could eventually become a melody.

Strictly speaking, a melody is a sequence of single notes that are musically satisfying. What makes the connection between the notes satisfying is how they relate to one another, something we might call harmony – which is exactly what we’re going to try to produce right now…

[We broke the sanctuary into four quadrants and gave each section a note to sing C-E-G-C in order sing a harmonic chord)

As we come to the conclusion of our series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, it’s notable that Paul didn’t start that particular church. In fact, they were strangers to one another when he shows up in the book of Acts.

In other words, they didn’t pick him.

Sound familiar?

And yet, what wildly wonderful good news! God delights in gathering together people who otherwise have nothing in common save for the fact that Jesus calls them friends. Paul reminds us again and again and again that we, with all our differences, can actually make melody and harmony together because God is in the business of making something of our nothing. 

In many ways, God is the great conductor of an orchestra we call the church in which we are all given instruments to play however we see fit, all while God keeps us in rhythm with each other. When we begin to see, and to hear, how we make music together, it starts to reshape everything else about our lives. 

Strangers become sisters and others become brothers.

We, who were once far off are brought near by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We, who have no business being close to God at all, are incorporated into Christ’s body to be Christ’s body for the world.

And it’s because of all this work done by God for us that we can give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Gratitude, like music, changes things.

We can certainly go about day to day complaining about particular individuals who drive us crazy, we can lament the need to mow our lawns, we can even grumble about having to help our kids with their homework.

Or, with gratitude, we can reframe it such that we get to be connected with the strange and wondrous and confounding human beings around us, we get to spend time outside communing with creation, and we get to sit down with our kids and watch their minds grow and change before our very eyes.

Music and gratitude are not distractions from the harsh truths of life. Instead, they give us the means by which we can experience all that life offers knowing all the while that God is, in fact with us. 

In the end, Paul is right – it is not only possible, but even necessary, that we should “always and for everything” give thanks. God transforms the darkest night and the most frightening storms into glorious day and beautiful seas. 

God can even take a ragtag group of people called church and make a melody. Amen. 

Risky Love

Ephesians 4.25-27

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. 

There was a man who liked to mow his lawn early in the morning. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garden when, out of nowhere, he was tackled off the mower and onto the ground.

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway exchanging blows until concerned neighbors rushed forward to stop the scuffle.

Hours later, the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the attack took place. In our heightened and frenetic political atmosphere, tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Paul’s political proclivities and that he felt the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if the same thing could happen to them.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. And it sure is a strange new world. Jesus (and Paul the apostle) is forever going on about loving our neighbors as ourselves and about speaking the truth in love.

Which are decisively difficult when we don’t even know our neighbors, let alone what the truth might be that we can express toward them.

So, instead, we practice silence and we call it love. 

Sometimes that silence turns into bitterness, and then the bitterness turns into anger, and then before we know it we’re tackling our neighbor for not taking better care of his lawn. 

And yet, in the church, we are called to speak the truth in love and we know what real love looks like – it looks like the cross. 

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God and neighbor is demanding and risky. Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on down the drain.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

We, of course, are not the Lord (thanks be to God). In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do. 

Contrary to all of its complications, neighborly love is at the heart of the life of the church and every single person who claims to follow Jesus. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Or, to put it another way, when we begin to see how much God loves us in spite of all the reasons why God shouldn’t, it actually starts to change the way we interact with others, even our neighbors.

Love, the kind that God has for us and the kind we are called to have for God and neighbor, is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost.

And, because I believe music often does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us wrestle with what it means to speak the truth:

Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling” from 1992 is deceptively simple with the singer-songwriter and his acoustic guitar. And yet, the lyrics invite the listener into a wave of nostalgia that should come with a warning – the refrain is all about being haunted by a feeling, of being caught up in things we can’t quite explain. To me, it rings true of the ways we can be haunted by previous interactions.

Molly Tuttle is an award-winning guitarist with a penchant for insightful songwriting. And yet, it’s her cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” that really lets her shine. With the backing help of Old Crow Medicine Show she brings a welcome nuance to the well known song while making it sound hopeful and hopeless at the same time. 

Madeline Kenney’s new EP Summer Quarter recently compelled me to return to her 2018 single “Cut Me Off.” She sings with such raw honesty, an honesty all but absent in the world today, that I find myself getting lost in her lyrical sonic wonder. The song’s disjointed melody, ripe with surfer guitar strumming and syncopated drumming, really conveys a sense of what it means to be cut off literally and figuratively. 

Forgiven To Forgive

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 

I am convinced that the crucible of Sunday morning worship doesn’t actually happen in this space, but takes place in the 5-10 minutes immediately following the service, and the email inbox on Monday mornings.

Yes, what we do in our hour together is powerful and faithful and transformative. We gather, we proclaim, we respond, we are sent forth. That’s all good and fine.

But it’s in the time after our time in here that really shows what happened during our time together.

The Sunday morning debrief, otherwise known as the receiving line following worship, is  wonderful, bewildering, and terrifying.

More often than not someone will make a comment about the weather or about lunch plans. A few of you have noted, as of recent, that it hasn’t rained since I arrived in town, so thanks for trying to pin that on me. Good stuff.

Occasionally I’ll hear something profound like, “I really heard God speak today” or, “You really gave me something to think about.” Good stuff.

But every once in a while I hear a comment that cuts through all the rest. Someone, usually waiting until most people clear out, will step forward and say something like, “I didn’t like it. But I’m not sure which part I enjoyed less, the sermon or the scripture.”

And, frankly, I can’t blame those who feel that way. Have you read the Bible? Be careful! There’s some wild stuff in there.

Two female bears descend from the wilderness and maul 42 young boys for making fun of a bald headed prophet (2 Kings 2).

A preacher goes on a little too long while a young man dozes in a window and then he falls out of said window to his death (Acts 20).

God commands a prophet to walk around naked for three years as a sign against foreign nations (Isaiah 20).

And those are just the first three that come to mind!

But even Jesus has a penchant for strange stories.

God is like a shepherd with 100 sheep. And, when one sheep goes missing, the Good Shepherd delights in leaving the 99 behind in order to find the one who is lost.

That’s a quaint little story, one we teach to our children. But you know what happens when you leave the flock behind to go in search of the one missing? It only guarantees 99 more lost sheep! That’s no way to run a shepherding business.

God is like a sower who sows seeds all over the place regardless of the soil upon which the seeds land. 

That’s another nice one, it’s good imagery for those who enjoy gardening. Except, if you ask anyone who has spent any time with agriculture, that’s no way to do it. It’s a tremendous waste of seeds if you toss them onto the sidewalk and what about tiling the soil and moisture management? God, apparently, doesn’t have a very green thumb. 

Or how about this one: 

Two men enter a temple to pray, one a Pharisee – a man committed to the word of the Law, attentive to the demands of scripture, he gave a tenth of all he had to the poor and needy, prayed, fasted, and kept himself clean. He could’ve run for office without fear of anyone finding a skeleton in his closet. He was proud of being who he was.

The other man was a reprehensible tax collector, a publican, taking money from his own people and giving it to the empire, a political traitor, he was dirty. The kind of man no one made eye contact with. 

And that day the Pharisee saw the good for nothing tax collector and declared, in prayer, “Lord, thank you that I am not like him!” Meanwhile, the tax collector, with fear and trembling, prayed, “Please God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And the tax collector walked away forgiven, justified.

I mean, Jesus, what kind of ship are you running? That’s not fair! You keep telling stories like that and no one will want to do any of this religious stuff. It’s irresponsible. The parable of the publican and the pharisee is all wrong. It’s the Pharisee that should walk away forgiven, he’s done all the right things. And the the publican, he should’ve been thrown in jail, or at the very least, kicked out of town by the very people he swindled.

You know, two weeks ago I decided to retell the parable of the prodigal and one of you came up to me after the service and said, with good intentions I think, “Well, I can’t believe you said the F word in church.”

Friends, I confess that for the briefest of moments I had to think back – Did I, a preacher of the Word, use such a word in my sermon?

But before I had a chance to respond this person said, “Forgiveness. What a dangerous word: forgiveness.”

Paul writes to the budding church in Ephesus about the positive and negative consequences of the great shadow that God casts upon the lives of disciples. When God grabs hold of us, everything changes whether we want it to or not. Somewhere along the line we discover that God, bewilderingly, has given us a sacred and indestructible trust – we are stuck with the body of Christ. 

It’s not easy being stuck with people, especially with pharisees and tax collectors. It’s a challenge to be among such individuals, and yet here we are, surrounded by sinners and scoundrels alike. 

But it is when discipleship becomes challenging that we know the mercy of God is at work in our lives. The weight of all these weighty expectations that Paul drops on us: put away all your wrath and bitterness and slander and malice, be kind and tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you – the call to this kind of life is for those who know they stand in and on God’s grace alone.

Put another way – It’s only the Spirit of freedom that give us the freedom to forgive.

Why does the publican walk away forgiven while the Pharisee doesn’t? We can try to insert reasons – perhaps the publican was a man of the people, maybe he was kind in spite of all his tax collecting. And maybe the pharisee was a religious bigot, a viper, a terror to the community.

But Jesus doesn’t provide an answer to those sorts of questions. 

Forgiveness is an odd thing, and I don’t need to tell you that most of us don’t believe in it. Give us the good ol time religion, we’ll read with kids, and purchase school supplies, and feed the hungry, and all sorts of stuff. But forgive the one who has wronged us?

No thank you.

That’s irresponsible behavior! You can’t just let people get away with stuff, we can’t be too soft on sin!

What makes forgiveness so difficult?

Once, when Jesus was teaching, the disciples said, “Wait a minute JC. What you’re saying is too much for us. We need you to increase our faith!”

And what was the topic of conversation? Going the extra mile? Turning the other cheek? Praying for our enemies? No. Jesus was talking about forgiveness.

So Peter speaks up, “Lord, perhaps we should put some limits on this whole forgiveness thing. How does 7 times sound?”

“No,” the Lord replies, “I tell you: 70 times 7 times.”

And Peter, the rock of the church, says something like, “But Jesus, if we forgive that many times, then we’ll go to our grave forgiving.”

“Right,” Jesus says, “You’ll go to your grave forgiving.”

We can’t do it Lord, increase our faith!

Forgiveness comes at a cost – a cost for the one offering forgiveness and for the one receiving. To offer forgiveness implies a willingness to truly see those who have wronged us as fellow sheep in need of a shepherd. And to receive forgiveness implies a willingness to admit that we are people who have wronged the other sheep in the fold.

Jesus routinely criticized the religious leaders of his day for all sorts of nonsense. They were hypocrites and slanderers and thieves and they kept heaping sins upon the backs of those who kept the faith. And then Jesus, God in the flesh, kept passing out forgiveness to those who asked for it and even for those who didn’t know they needed it!

Why then, do we insist on holding our grudges, big and small, when our Lord, the Good Shepherd, is forever out and about beating the bushes of life looking for some lost sheep, some tax collector, and even a pharisee to bring them back in?

Forgiveness is hard.

And yet, it negates and fulfills all righteousness.

In the end, we’re all publicans and pharisees. We facilitate between lives of honesty and lives of denial. We hold on to our anger toward one another and we also foolishly assume that no one could ever be angry at us.

The worst kind of lostness is not knowing how lost we are at all.

The worst kind of sin is to believe that we are without sin.

The worst kind of unforgiveness is to presume that we don’t need forgiveness.

But we are lost, each and every one of us. We’re stuck in the bushes of life, far removed from our shepherd, for the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do. And yet, God keeps insisting meeting us where we are, in the midst of our sins, and never ever stops.

Forgiveness is dangerous stuff, but it gets even wilder because God forgives us before we even have a chance to repent. 

Consider the sheep, it’s probably going to get lost again and again and again. The sheep doesn’t say, “Oh my shepherd, I will never ever get lost again so long as you rescue me.” The sheep just says “Baa!” and the shepherd comes.

Consider the sower, scattering seeds this way and that before the soil has a chance to get itself in shape to receive the seeds that are the Word and God never stops sowing.

Consider the publican, he walks away forgiven but we don’t hearing anything about whether or not he mended his ways. He could go back day after day, 70 times 7 days, and he would walk away forgiven each and every time.

Forgiveness surrounds us in the church, it beats down upon our lives. It’s in the strange new world of the Bible, its in the prayers we pray and the songs we sing, its in the water with which we baptize and it’s in the bread and the cup that we share.

If we ever confess, it is only ever a confession to waking up to what we already have.

In other words, we are forgiven not because we make ourselves forgivable, but only because we have a Forgiver.

And because we have a Forgiver, the only One who can really offer it in the first, we can do impossible things. We can, to borrow the language from Ephesians, put away all malice and anger and strife and fear because we are members of one another, we are one body, we are Christ’s body. 

Look at us! We’re different people from different places with different faces – we are unique from one another in unfathomable ways and yet, we are all equal in this – we are sinners who have been forgiven.

In the end, the sheep who stray happen to be all of us, pharisees and publicans alike. Each and every single one of us here are in need of forgiveness, and each and every single one of us have someone we need to forgive.

It isn’t easy – it might even be dangerous. But there is something much much worse than forgiveness – a life of hatred, resentment, and selfishness.

It’s outrageous stuff, forgiveness. It just also happens to be the way Jesus runs the kingdom. Amen.

Stuck Together

Ephesians 4.1-16

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. There it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

The prevailing wisdom is that, when a newish preacher arrives in town, he or she should avoid controversial topics at all costs. At least, in the beginning. 

You don’t want to burn any bridges before they have a chance to be built in the first place.

But some things can’t be ignored – some topics demand our attention whether we want them to or not.

I don’t know if you know this, but 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 really truly seems as if there is no future in which we stay united.

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… But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live 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 ways 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 belated particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this: “It matters not how we treat 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 talk like that 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 hold onto a common cause.

And, lest we grow apathetic about the possibility of ecclesial schism, lives are at stake.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should. So, let me try to break it down a little bit. There is a sizable portion of the church that believes in the institution of slavery is a right given by God Almighty while the other side of the church believes that slavery and the ownership of human beings runs counter to the Good News of the Gospel.

So, friends in Christ, what should we do?

Or, to put it another way, which church should we align ourselves with?

Oh, I seem to have misplaced the notes for my sermon… I think I grabbed the one from 1844 instead of the one for 2021…

You see, the quotes I just read from different pastors were not shared on various social media accounts over the last few years – they didn’t come from the bitterness of recent denominational meetings in which theological dueling has become a favorite pastime. No, all of those are real quotes from pastors in 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And the matter at hand then, the decisive claim that actually split the church until 1939, was slavery.

I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.

We don’t know all the details that required the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, but it’s clear that not all of those who were part of the gathering, the ecclesia, were getting along.

There’s a good chance that it had something to do with Gentile Christians making claims about what the faith really looked like now that they were part of the covenant whereas Jewish Christians were holding on to the faith that had first grabbed hold of them.

Or, it could’ve been a little more like the church in Corinth that was constantly bickering about the nuts and bolts of community meals and how the unified church broke into different factions led by different leaders.

Or, maybe they were arguing about who was and who wasn’t compatible with Christian teaching.

We’re not entirely sure but, taking a step back for a moment, it doesn’t really make that much sense. How could a community founded on radical inclusion descend into rampant division? Why would a people who are commanded to love their neighbors have so much trouble actually doing it? What happened such that brothers and sisters in Christ had to be told to bear with one another in love?

Strange, isn’t it? 

What we do know about the church in Ephesus is that Paul felt compelled to write this letter, a letter we refer to as Holy Scripture, and Christians like us have been gathering together to proclaim these words for centuries.

I beg you to live with humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Wow.

Who would’ve imagined that a scripture text could ever have so much to say to our current context…

And here’s the rub: Paul can exhort us all he wants to be worthy of the Gospel, he can list off in rapid fire detail all of the practical habits that define what the church can be. But, at the end of the day, we will never be worthy of the Gospel.

Never ever.

At least, not on our own.

We’re fickle and selfish little creatures, we humans. It doesn’t matter whether its the first century, or the 19th century, or today, we are consumed by, and addicted to, dividing ourselves into who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. 

And yet, the church touts itself as a bastion of inclusiveness: open hearts, open minds, open doors. Ever heard of it?

Is the Gospel really for all?

I mean, what about those real sinners (let you imaginations run wild)? How would we feel if they started showing up on Sunday mornings?

We might bristle at the thought, but making the outsiders into insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. Which, when you think about it, is actually really Good News because the Gospel is the most inclusive thing around: At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

To be clear: that includes each and every one of us.

And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.

Consider the seven ones that Paul rattles off: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

We who we far off and we who were near have been brought together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Christ is the reason, and the only reason, we can be one.

Warring cultures divided by heritage, and traditions, and moral codes, and even ethical expectations have collided into a new order, a community we call the church.

Paul’s prayer from last Sunday’s passage transforms today into a call to preserve the peace made possible in Christ. Paul literally begs us to see that even our myriad differences, great though they may be, they pale in comparison to the vast gulf between God and us. And yet God chose us!

Think about that for a moment. God, knowing full and well that we are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels, that we will regularly look out for our own interests instead of those in need, that, when push comes to shove, given the choice between life and death, we would choose to nail God to a cross, God still chooses to be for us!

In Christ, we encounter the incomparable new reality of God which both humbles us and exalts us, which knocks us down and builds us up, and that is our peace.

You see, peace, at least peace as defined by the Gospel, comes when we recognize our universal incompetence and our total need for someone to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

God has claimed us. And, as Karl Barth put it, unity is the consequence of belonging to God.

However, there is a difference between the now and the not yet. Our sin-sick souls are stuck in this terrifying cycle of division and antipathy. But, as Christians, we are called to look beyond and, in so doing, reframe the now.

There are walls of division that threaten to divide the church, to literally break up the body of Christ. They existed in Ephesus, they were there in 1844, and they’re still around today.

Paul, across the ages, pleads with us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, something we can’t actually do on our own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And, notably, the strange new world of the Bible reminds us again and again 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 willing to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

Faith is always a journey.

Paul likens it to the way a body grows – it happens, in time, and it can be painful. And we can try all we want to resist it, but God is going to get what God wants.

It is therefore in the knowledge of the hope that is beyond our current circumstances that we find our peace. Peace is upon the mountain. We have not yet reached the mountain. But we can lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help comes.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been particularly struck by this little moment in the Gospel right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Abandoned by his followers, betrayed by his disciples, condemned by the religious elites, Jesus carries his own instrument of death to the place called the skull, and what does he say?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The truth is, we still don’t know what we’re doing.

The United Methodist Church, the body of Christ for the world, is at war with itself over who can marry who and who can do what I do. But we’re also on the brink of schism in our community over politics, and education, and a variety of other subjects.

It’s terrifying how content we are to cut off our hands and our feet.

We still identify who is in and who is out based on categories that make absolutely no sense in the Kingdom of God. We view one another through names on bumper stickers, and through ill-advised Facebook posts, and through late-night ramblings on twitter.

And today scripture grabs us by the collar and says, “Listen! God has made us beautifully different! Unity isn’t uniformity! We bring together all of our differences and that what makes the one body we call church so amazing. So stop acting like children for God’s sake, literally. You move about with every new headline, and you give into to such shameful divisions. Listen! Speak the truth in love. IN LOVE! You don’t deserve to be part of the body of Christ. No one does. And yet God chose you anyway! We are not what we can be without you, and neither can we be who God is calling us to be if we keep cutting off our arms and our legs!”

At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever the they are, are wrong.

But again, the Gospel tells us something different – the Gospel tells us we’re all wrong! That’s why the Gospel is more inclusive than anything in existence! We don’t stand on our accomplishments or on our righteousness – none of us are righteous, no not one.

The only thing we stand on is the grace and love of God freely given to us in Christ Jesus.

Or, in other words, we’re stuck with each other because God has decided to be stuck with us. So be it. Amen.

The Mystery of Christ

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. 

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father.

For what reason, Paul?

This is one of the challenges with lifting up these discrete passages of scripture on Sunday mornings and declaring “The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.”

That’s all good and fine, but what’s the reason Paul feels compelled to his knees?

We can, of course, flip back in our Bibles to earlier parts of the letter to the Ephesians and we can read about God delighting in bringing those who were far and those who we near together through the blood of the Lamb, we can read about the riches of God’s mercy, we can even read about the proclamation of peace made possible in Christ, but here’s the real zinger: by grace you have been saved.

By grace you have been saved.

Paul calls this the mystery of Christ.

And what, exactly makes it so mysterious? That God, author of the cosmos, would come to dwell among us, to live, and die, and live again that we might do the same – that’s confounding stuff.

Notice, too, the language – by grace you have been saved – it’s done and decided, without us having to do much of anything save trusting that it is true.

That profound promise, that decisive declaration, is enough to get Paul down on his knees in humble adoration. He’s filled to the brim with joy and gratitude, his cup runneth over as it were, because God has done what we could not have even imagined.

That might be a little tough for us to come to grips with today, with 2,000 years of church history of knowing how the story ends. But during the time of Christ, no one expected the resurrection – not the crowds, not the religious elites, not even the disciples. And yet, Easter is the transformation of all things – death no longer has dominion over us.

By grace you have been saved.

Put simply – The work of God in Christ has made it such that there is no nation, clan, family, or even an individual who is beyond the love of God.

Or, in even simpler terms: even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

Now, I know that seems like an obvious thing for someone like me to say in a place like this, but it’s a rather inconvenient truth for us to swallow. For, it implies that we don’t deserve what we’ve received. And boy do we enjoy the language of fairness.

Well, for those of you unaccustomed, God is downright unfair.

God lifts up the lowly and bring down the mighty.

God has compassion for the poor and sends the rich away empty.

God takes brokenness and turns it in value.

God looks at sin and sees redemption.

And yet, God’s unfairness is riotously Good News! 

Listen – despite how well we might strive to appear on Sunday morning, each of us bring a myriad of secret hurts, private shames, and lost hopes to worship. Our exteriors may display something different, but on the inside we’re all struggling under the weight of the world, and the weight of expectations (those we place ourselves and those placed on us).

And yet, this is what God has to say today: By grace you have been saved! Bring your pain and your shame, bring your fears and your frustrations. By grace you have been saved! It’s not up to you to ascend the mountaintop of morality. It’s not up to you to earn your way through the pearly gates. By grace you have been saved! 

This is the whole of the Bible in a sentence. Whatever else we do, praying or singing, it’s all a response to this profound and mysterious word spoken to us by the Lord.

And in order to hear this Word, really hear it deep in every fiber of our being, we need what we call the church – the great company of those who are willing to listen together – to hear it and receive it. 

It’s not something we can just believe on our own – we need it spoken to us over and over again because, of course, it sounds too good to be true. 

And that’s exactly why we gather together, and pray together, and sing together, and laugh together, and weep together, it’s all so that we might hold fast to the only really Good News we can ever receive.

It’s therefore in the knowledge of the Good News that Paul is drawn to his knees in prayer – in prayer for us.

I pray that, according to the wonderful bounty of God’s glory, you may be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being reminded of the love that meets you where you are. 

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth, and to know the love of Jesus that surpasses knowledge. 

And so to him, who is able to accomplish far more than we can ever ask for or imagine, to him be glory in the church forever and ever. 

Paul prays, across the generations of the church, that we might come to know the immense and bewildering and mysterious nature of God’s love for us.

Remember: the God we see revealed in Jesus is what God is really like, deep down, which is also to say that the God we see in Christ is what God has always been like and will always be like.

What better way can we know what God’s love is like, then, by listen to a story that Jesus tells about himself?

Listen – There was a man who had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family – the little grocery store was passed from generation to generation and the father worked hard for the store and for his sons.

And one day the younger son walks in the back office and says, “Dad, I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

And, strangely enough, the father responds by dividing up his assets between his boys: to the elder hegiras the property and the responsibility of the family business – to the younger he cashes in on some investments in order to hand over his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of the money in Atlantic City. The more he spent the more he lost and the more he lost the more he spent, on women, on booze, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happens so fast that he starts begging the casino owner for work.

“Sure,” the owner says, we’ve got an opening in janitorial services.

The younger son spends the days emptying trash can after trash can and even thinks about sneaking a few pieces of food from the bottom of the bags because he’s so hungry.

And eventually he comes to himself – he realizes that even the employees back at his father’s grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their head. So he packs up the little that he has, and he heads home.

The father is sitting by the front window in the grocery store, listening to his older son bark out orders to his former employees from the back room when, all of the sudden, he catches a glimpse of his younger son walking up the street. And he immediately runs out the door, tackles his boy to the ground, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy struggles to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Would you shut up!” The father yells, “We’re gonna close the store for the rest of the day and throw a party!”

He lifts his boy off the ground, pulls him into the store, and starts barking out orders of his own, “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “Hey Jim, do me a favor, find me the nicest rack of lam we’ve got and start roasting it out back” “Everyone, it’s time to celebrate, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”

The beer caps start flying, the radio in the corner gets turned all the way up, and everyone starts rejoicing in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and the payroll, when he starts to hear commotion down the hall. He looks up in the door frame and catches a glimpse of Jim with foamy beer stuck to his mustache while humming a tune and carrying what looks like a nice leg of lamb and the older brother shouts, “What is going on?”

Jim hiccups and says, “It’s your baby bro, he’s home, and your Dad’s throwing him a party.”

The older brothers fists tightens into a knot and he slams the door in Jim’s face.

With every passing minute his frustration and anger increases. He evens throws the older ledger book across the office, and then he hears a little knock on the door.

His dad steps into the office and says, “What are you doing back here? You’re missing the celebration!”

The older son is incredulous: “I’m doing my job Dad, in case you’ve forgotten. Look, I’ve been working like a slave for you and I’ve never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me! But this prodigal son of your returns home, having wasted all of your money, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

The father doe-eyed happiness disappears for a moment, he grabs his older son by the collar, and says, “You idiot. I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me. You’ve been working for yourself! I gave your brother cash and I gave you the family business and what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by doing what you think you’re supposed to do that you’ve lost sight of what matters.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now! I’m on a roll. Listen – all the matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you? You’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the music! The only real reason you haven’t come to join us out front is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectation that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time, and you’re alive and miserable. Do yourself a favor, son of mine, forget about your so-called life, and come have some fun.”

The parable of the prodigal.

A story we might call unfair…

This story shows us the mystery of Christ – The father chooses to die for us, to give away his whole career and future in the parable, whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. And like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteous snobbery.

The mystery of Christ, contrary to how we often present it in church, is that Jesus came to save sinners.

And notice: Jesus didn’t say he came to judge sinners, or even turn them into non-sinners, he said he came to save us.

The whole of the New Testament, from the parables to the epistles, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ salvation work only by grace through faith – not by frightening people into getting their acts together.

If the Gospel is about anything – it is about how God meets us where we are, not where we ought to be.

In the end, it’s a mystery. It also happens to be the only Good News around. Amen.

Beyond Belief

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that your were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with it commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grow into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

It was a warm summer night in Washington DC. Eight friends gathered around a table in the backyard of one of their homes, there was wine and appetizers, and toasts were being made back in forth in celebration of all the good things they had going for them.

“We didn’t want the evening to end,” one of them remarked later.

But around 10pm the festivities came to a screeching halt.

A strange man wandered into the backyard with a gun, he raised it to the head of one of the guests, and demanded money.

He kept shouting for them to empty their pockets and his screaming got louder and louder.

But there was a problem.

No one had any cash.

Again, they were friends gathering in a backyard.

But their pleas for understanding only further aggravated the assailant and they all grew fearful that something terrible, truly terrible, was about to happen.

But then one of the women at the table said, rather casually, “You know, we’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine and join us?”

It was like a switch was flipped in the backyard and everything changed.

All of the sudden, the look on the man’s face transformed dramatically.

He sat down at the table, a class of wine was placed in front of him and he took a sip. He remarked about how good the wine was and then he reached for some bread, and before long he put the gun in his pocket.

They gathered back around the table, with one extra guest, and they continued their evening.

After some time the man said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” 

They all sat in silence, listening to the insects chirping in the air.

And then he said something that no one was expecting: “Can I get a hug?”

One by one, the friends stood up and eventually they were all embracing in the backyard.

Later, the man apologized for what he had done and walked back out onto the street, still carrying the glass of wine as though it was now a part of who he was.

I first heard this story on an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, and the hosts of the pod were quick to cite this backyard encounter as an example what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. Basically, the idea is that people naturally try to mirror one another so if someone is acting really hostile and someone is very calm, one of them will change to match the other, for good or for ill.

But in the church, we call what happened in that backyard faith.

Because faith isn’t just something we have, faith is something done to us.

Put another way: faith is a gift.

Later, when one of the backyard guests was sharing the story with the hosts of Invisibilia, he said, “We had no idea that words – an invitation to celebration – could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like a miracle.”

It was like a miracle.

Why are you here? Some of you are here because you’ve gone to church for as long as you can remember and you can’t really imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you have questions that you want answered. Some of you are here because life has dealt you a raw hand and you’re hoping to hear some Good News. And still yet, some of you are here against your will! Someone else brought you, or dragged you here.

Well, no matter why you’re here, hear this:

Remember that at one time you were without Jesus, you were strangers to the covenant of promise. Remember that at one time you had no hope whatsoever and you were without God in the world.

But now. But now! In Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

What Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, what we proclaim as the Good News in church today about what God has done to us, it should shock us. 

That we, the church, with all of our disparate ideas and ideologies, that we exist is almost beyond belief.

I mean, take a look around, consider even those who are worshipping with us online, we come from different places with different backgrounds, we are different ages and we make different wages. That such a group can gather together to worship God is, in fact, beyond belief, because we do not have to believe in something that we can see.

Even amidst all of our warts and bruises, all of our faults and failures, it matters that we are here.

It matters because we are what God has done.

We don’t know much about the circumstances regarding Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. However, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to deduce that the community addressed was struggling with the stunning and, perhaps unbelievable, revelation that even Gentiles were included in kingdom of God. 

Two hostile groups, Jews and Gentiles, have been brought together by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.

And, notice the language – have been brought together.

It’s already done and decided.

Imagine, if you can, how shocking and bewildering it must’ve been to receive this Good News. That people, namely Gentiles, who had no business and standing whatsoever with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were now incorporated into the promise. 

It cannot be underscored enough how outside the realm of possibilities this was. It was one thing for a first century carpenter turned rabbi to be the Messiah, God in the flesh, the long awaited One. But it’s another thing entirely that by the blood of that One who came to live, and die, and live again that peace could really reign supreme.

We, today, might think that being Christian merely means that we come to church on Sundays. But Paul seems to have a much greater and deeper vision for what the Ekklesia is, and can be. 

Our existence here and now is already radically related to God’s beyond and all that we do and experience is redefined in the light of God’s future because of God’s past.

Hear it again – There were people in the world without promise, without hope, and without God.

We were those people!

But now we are no longer those people because we belong to God. And not just us! God delights in drawing all things and all people into the new reality we call the Gospel.

All of these distinctions between them and us, Gentile and Jew, Pharisee and Publican, unbelievers and believers, outsiders and insiders, they are all upended in the One who is our peace. 

Contrary to how we often act, or believe, we can only become part of God’s family through adoption. No one comes to Christianity naturally – it runs so counter to everything the world teaches us. Christians, as the early church leader Tertullian put it, are made, not born.

Christianity, at its best, is a system of habits and practices that teach us, over and over again, who we are and whose we are. And it really is we. We, who at one time were not part of the gathering, of the ekklesia, received an undeserved inheritance. We had no hope in the world but now we’re heirs to the great fortune we call salvation.

And, again, notice how all the verbs are passive. That is: they convey the completion of God’s action.

Which is rather notable!

Paul doesn’t say we decided to join this gathering, or that we made a commitment to God, but instead he says we were built, we were joined together.

All of this isn’t something we do. It’s something done to us. 

In the church we call it grace.

In the end, we wouldn’t necessarily choose to live this way on our own. And I don’t just mean the fact that we wake up on Sunday mornings to hang out with people we share little in common with except that Jesus calls us friends. But the act of the discipleship, of following Jesus, it comes not when we decide to take a step toward him, but when we realize that he stepped toward us first. 

For a long time it was just assumed that people became Christians simply by virtue of growing up in a place like this. 

Those days are long gone.

We are now strangers in a strange land, navigating the murky waters of an unknown time for the church. And yet, this is Good News! It is Good News because we have the blessed opportunity to really reflect on what it actually means to be the church and who God is calling us to be. 

Being a Christian isn’t natural. It runs counter to the ways of the world. Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? We are different.

However, we have often tried to avoid the differences that make us different. We don’t want to appear strange, or evangelical, or like those other kinds of Christians (whoever they may be). We’ve been content to let our faith be something that happens on Sundays and only on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it’s been unclear why anyone would want to be like us.

Jesus is the difference who makes us different. 

And he is the One who makes it such that we can be here together even though we are different. 

I said in the beginning that some of you might be here because you’re looking for something, but maybe you’re actually here because something (or rather someone) was looking for you.

Again, our text from Ephesians is full to the brim with God’s actions. 

It is God who has called us here. It is God who has made the impossible possible. It is God who has incorporated all of us into something we would never choose on our own. It is God who has destroyed every dividing wall. And it is God who has established bountiful avenues of connection.

Being here, being part of God church, is only possible because God made it so.

I hope you hear those words as a tremendous comfort because, in the end, our relationship with God is not predicated on how we feel, or what we say, or how we act. Our relationship with God is based entirely on what God in Christ has already done!

I know I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to know that not all of us act like perfect Christians all the time. But that’s not the point! The point is that God, who chose us before the foundation of all things, has called us to be part of the unbelievable gathering we call church.

And it is through the church that we come to know peace.

I mean, that’s a stunning claim! In addition to God’s strange desire to bring a motley crew together like us, Paul writes that we can know peace, that we can really know peace because we know Jesus who is our peace.

It happens to all of us, at one point or another. We think we can go about our merry way doing whatever we want whenever we want when, all of the sudden, Jesus grabs hold of us. 

For some, the grabbing comes like the end of a shepherd’s staff yanking us away from our own foolishness.

For others, the grabbing comes through a particular prayer, or person, or proclamation, in a particular moment.

And still yet, for some of us, the grabbing comes through the offer at a table, to sit down and enjoy the bread and the cup because we’re got something to celebrate. 

In the end, part of the witness of the church is to a set of words – an invitation to celebration – that can grab hold of us and change us. It’s like a miracle. And we’re the proof. Amen. 

Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

We Are The Stories We Tell

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.

Years ago there was a young man, still early in his ministry, who was appointed to serve a new church. 

At least, it was new to him.

He had gone to the right seminary, and studied all the right books, and prayed all the right prayers, and served in the right ways, and was excited about this next step in the adventure that is faith.

So with eager anticipation, he packed his bags and got in the car to go check out John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia.

This preacher was so excited, in fact, that when he arrived in town, before he unpacked his bags, he drove to the church. He typed the requisite address and admired the different varieties of trees planted perfectly along the road, but when came to his destination, he saw no church.

So he turned around, drove down the road once more and, again, no church to be found.

Finally, he got out of the car, and walked along the sidewalk for a closer inspection until he eventually found the church and he discovered why he missed it so many times: there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the grounds with roots exposed and the church sign, plus the majority of the building, were hidden behind the tree’s long branches. 

The preacher stood awkwardly on the front lawn of the church taking in the sight of the godforsaken tree, and decided he was going to do something about it.

So he drove back to his house, found the box containing his chainsaw, and then he set out to cut the tree down. He made short work of it, moving methodically from branch to branch (he was a Methodist after all) until, before long, he took a step back to admire his work.

The sign and the building were now completely visible from the road and he thought, rather proudly, that maybe just a few extra people would be in church on Sunday morning. 

A few days later, as the pastor sat down to continue chipping away at his first sermon for the church, he received a call from his District Superintendent: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the DS said, “because you’re being reappointed.” 

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. 

John Wesley himself had stood on the roots of that tree nearly 300 hundred years ago and preached to that community. Afterward, the gathered people decided to build a church right next to the tree in honor of the man who started a revolution of the heart, and that young pastor chopped it down.

Stories are remarkably important. Put another way: We are the stories we tell.

They contain and convey just about everything regarding who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held by and within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to share what it ultimately means to be human.

Today we live in a time of competing narratives in which every television show, every streaming service, every website, and every social media platform are vying for our allegiance and our attention. We are constantly bombarded, whether we like it or not, with information that attempts to tell us who we really are, what we really need, and where we are really going.

We live in a time in which more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live in a time in which people spend more time debating where they see the best view of fireworks, or what’s really going on in Loki, or which politician is finally going to set things right than they will consider the children in their community who have nothing to eat. We live in a time in which plenty of us would rather store up all of our treasures on earth without thinking at all about how every gift first comes from the Lord.

Right now, the world is telling us what is important and it’s not easy to discern between the voice of the world, and the voice of God.

But listen to St. Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the powers and principalities that try to define you. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Open your eyes to the beauty of the strange new world made possible by Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Whenever people like us gather like this we are bound together in loyalty to a story that once was not our story. But, through God’s wonderful and confounding actions in the world, that story is now our story. It is a story of cross and resurrection, of the first being last and the last being first, of undeserving people being forgiven.

That story will always but us at odds with the world.

And, according to the ways of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place. People are no longer regularly attending worship and that started long before a pandemic kept us in our houses on Sunday mornings. Christianity has lost its status in the public arena, we are becoming frighteningly illiterate (biblically speaking), and young people are almost nowhere to be seen when it comes to the body of Christ.

Did you know that the average age of a United Methodist is 58?

That means I still have 25 years to go before I’m average!

Did you know that the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years?

The world will tell us that the church is dead, that we have to do whatever we can, however we can, to get people in our building, that we need to cut down every tree (real or otherwise) that is blocking the church from the street, that we need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future because the church is dead.

Thanks be to God then, that we worship the Lord who works in the business of resurrection, of making a way where there is now way, of impossible possibility. 

We don’t have to conform to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! 

While others might shrink away or wail in fear regarding the statistics I just mentioned, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would the church change if we took seriously the radical nature of God’s grace? What would happen if we embraced the trees and traditions of the church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

We are the stories we tell.

Here’s part of mine: 

I am a cradle Methodist – I was baptized when I was 19 days old at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria VA, where I was raised and confirmed. I ran the sound system for worship as a tweenager, played for two of our worship bands, and spent even more time at the church because it was where my boy scout troop met every week. As a teenager one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident and I found myself ministering to friends and family using words that were not my own, but words that had been habituated into my life because of the church and the Spirit.

I began feeling like this might be what God was calling me to do with my life and when I told the senior pastor at my church his response was, “You wanna preach in a few weeks?”

I went to JMU to study religion, I went to Duke for my Masters in Divinity, met my now wife Lindsey while I was in North Carolina and we have a remarkable 5 year old named Elijah Wolf. 

My first appointment was to St. John’s UMC in Staunton, my last appointment was to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I love the church, I always have and I always will. For me, the church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather with people they have nothing else in common with save for the fact that Jesus has called them his friends.

I also love the church because I believe it is the better place God has made in the world. When we pray, when we break bread, when we baptize, we are all getting foretastes of the Supper of the Lamb that goes on and on forever.

Here’s what I know of your story:

I know that the church has been a beacon of the Gospel in Roanoke for 100 years. I know that you care deeply about the Word, about worship, and about mission. I know that you pride yourselves on your hospitality, something my family and I have been the beneficiaries of over the last few weeks. I know that you believe in the work of the Kingdom and are ready for the next 100 years. 

And now God has seen fit to string and knit our stories together.

Being a Christian is all about being brought into another story, a different telling of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that we call the Gospel – The Good News. 

And the stories from the strange new world of the Bible really do shape us – they speak greater truths than simple facts and statistics, they tell us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. That’s why Jesus never really simply explains anything to anyone, but instead is forever going on and on telling stories, stories we call parables. 

At the heart of the church is a willingness to share and to learn the art of story-telling. We learn one another’s stories by gathering for worship, or studying God’s Word, or serving the local and global community. We tell stories and receive stories so that we can cherish the roots of our foundations while, at the same time, looking to the future because God makes all things new.

The story of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church is entering into a new chapter. God is stirring things up in Roanoke. God is bombarding us with the grace that we don’t deserve but we surely need. And God is doing this not because there is a new pastor in town, and God is doing this not because the church is looking forward to the next hundred years – God is doing this simply because that’s who God is.

All of this, the church, the community of faith, grace, it’s all one remarkable gift. It’s the gift of a new past, in which the mistakes we’ve made are healed and the damage we’ve done is redeemed. We call it forgiveness. In the church and in the kingdom of God we are more than what we have failed to do, we are what God has done for us.

But it is all also a gift of a new future, in which the fear of punishment is annihilated and the terror of nothingness is obliterated – we’ve been promised resurrection. 

The Church is a new past, present, and future – it is a way of life made possible by Jesus in anticipation of God doing what God does best.

The world might tell us that the church is in a difficult place. But I look out from this pulpit to all of you gathered here in person, and to all of you gathered online, and I’m not worried about what the world has to say. I’m not worried about anything because my hope isn’t in me or even in any of you, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen.