We Are The Stories We Tell (Final Sermon at St. John’s UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, 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 fresh out of seminary, ready and eager to begin serving his first appoint in the United Methodist Church. He had taken all the right classes, learned from the best professors, and was excited about finally embarking on the ministry he had imagined for so long.

All he knew about his church was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

The young man was so anxious about the appointment that when he first got to town, a few days before his first Sunday, he got in his car and drove straight to the church. But when he arrived at what he thought was the address there was no church, so he doubled back and drove down the empty road until he found a disheveled looking building with the biggest and most unruly tree he had ever seen blocking the marquee and most of the structure.

The church clearly needed work: a new roof, new paint, new everything, it even had a bell tower without a bell. But above all it needed to have the tree uprooted. The young man stood there on the front lawn looking at the tree and the wheels started clicking in his mind… He thought that if he took the tree down, individuals from the community would be able to see the church and the sign from the main road and they might even get a couple extra visitors on his first Sunday.

So instead of going back to the parsonage to unpack all of his belongings and get settled, he went straight to the box with his chain saw and he went back to John Wesley UMC.

Hours later, with sweat dripping down his brow, the young pastor stood proudly in front of the church that was now completely visible from the road with the old gnarled tree perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor was sitting in the study at the parsonage preparing his very first sermon in his very first church when the phone rang. It was the District Superintendent and the pastor briefly thought that maybe his boss was calling to congratulate him on the quick work with the tree and the beauty of the totally visible church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s John Wesley had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all that Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love for the scriptures, and its shade was loved like the mustard bush from the time of Jesus.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to hold dear the most important elements of existence.

Stories are remarkably important. I’ve been saying some version of that sentence in every sermon over the last 4 years. It’s what I started with, and it’s what I’m ending with.

            We are the stories we tell.

By my rough calculations I’ve preached over 250 times while serving St. John’s and written about as many devotionals. I’ve traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles, read countless books, and gone to the hospital enough time that a few of the security guards will wave me into the ER without having to ask who I am.

I’ve gone to more meetings than I ever thought possible, compiled annual budgets I though we could never meet (though we always did), and led bible studies that have addressed almost every book of the bible.

And in all of this, I’ve written close to a million words in four years. Between the sermons and the studies, the devotionals and the prayers, even the chapel times and the epistles, nearly one million words.

All of those million words, in whatever context they appeared, they have been my attempt at saying these words: We are the stories we tell.

I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever walked into this sanctuary it was late in the evening on Good Friday in 2013 and no one could figure out how to turn the lights on. I groped around this room in the dark hoping to have a sense of what it looked like and left none the wiser. I love that story because it became indicative of our time together: rediscovering the light of Christ that burns in our lives.

Or I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever led the Children’s Message during worship I realized that I was closer in age to the kids sitting on the steps than to the vast majority of you folk sitting in the pews. I love that story because it quickly embodied how this church needed to discover it’s multi-generational gifts and people of all different ages have really grown closer together.

Or I could tell you the story about how on my very first Sunday I remembered to do everything except I forgot to give the ushers the offerings plates. It was good for a refreshing laugh that first worship service and I love that story because in it we learned, as a church, to stop worrying about the offering plate and instead we began to believe that the Lord would provide, and the Lord has provided ever since.

We, preachers and laypeople alike, tell stories in order that they might be remembered. We tell children about George Washington and his tree so that they will tell the truth. We tell high school students about political elections from the past so that they might cast informed votes in the future. We tell older adults about what our children have been up to so that they might live a little through them.

We tell stories because we want them to be remembered.

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But recently I was reading a book by Ellen Davis and she believes that a successful sermon is one that isn’t remembered. Sounds strange right? I’ve stood in this pulpit for four years in the hopes that you might actually remember what I said. But after reading that part of her book, I went through the archives and I came across a ton of sermons that I barely remember writing, let alone preaching.

A forgotten sermon is successful because we have to keep showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear again the story that makes us who we are.

If one sermon was capable of proclaiming all that the bible has to tell, all of the life of Jesus Christ, all of God’s glory, all of the fellowship of the Spirit, then we would never come back and our lives would be perfect from then on.

            But that’s not the way our lives work!

The goal of preaching, and of good story telling, is the hope that people won’t remember what you said. The goal should be that the next time someone turns to that part of the Bible it will say a little more to him or her. The purpose of the church, of doing worship week after week, is to give the bible a little more room to shine.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I hope you won’t forget me. I hope you will think back over these last years with fondness. I’m even bold to hope that you might remember some of my sermons. But more than that, I hope when you open up your bibles, the story of God with God’s people shines a light in your life, regardless of whomever the person was that stood in this pulpit.

Because today, the world is full of stories, competing narratives vying for our allegiance. It is almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything without someone or something telling us how we are supposed to understand the world.

And Paul dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you understand others, don’t let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationship with those who are of a different opinion. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Tell the story that is our story! Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. God transforms our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship and whenever we tell the story. The story of God in Christ reconciling himself to the World is what transforms us into the very people God is calling us to be.

According to the world, the church is in between a rock and a hard place. Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, people are no longer attending church like they once did, offering plates feel lighter and lighter. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are disappearing from the fabric of church.

The church is between a rock and a hard place.

            Thanks be to God then that Jesus Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand! We don’t have to be conformed to the ways of the world! We get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our story!

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say bring me your votes and your mortgages and your perfect families. Jesus says, bring me your burdens and I will bring you rest.

Jesus does not tell us to earn all that we can and save all that we can. Jesus tells us to give away all we can.

Jesus does not say that our religious convictions are private and something to keep to ourselves. Jesus tells us to go tell it on the mountain and share the Good News.

Jesus does not look at our outward appearance and say you’re too fat, or short, or tall, or dumb, or slow, or strange. Jesus looks into our hearts and says, “You are mine and I am thine.

This church, St. John’s, is on the precipice of a great journey; you’re about to receive a new pastor. But at the same time, this is nothing new. This is what the church is! It is the place where disciples gather to hear the story over and over and over again.

The stories of the world will never compare to the actions of God in the world through Jesus Christ. Whether you’re a brother or a sister, mother or father, republican or democrat, rich or poor, old or young, none of those narratives, none of those identities, none of those stories compare with what it means to follow Jesus.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, it’s not in Pastor Chuck Cole, my hope is not built on the ways of the world. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands. Jesus Christ is Lord and that means that the ways of the world crumble away when compared to the foundation made manifest in God in the flesh.

We are here in this place to share our stories with one another in order that we might learn more about how we are caught up in God’s great story. The ways of the world are nothing but sinking sand, they falter and flounder, they creak and groan, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Remember that Jesus is Lord! Keep the faith! Let the stories of scripture wash over you like the waters of baptism. Feast at this table like the disciples did with Jesus long ago!

            Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! To God be the Glory!

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Last Things (Part 1)

2 Corinthians 13.11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It falls on the first day of a new liturgical season we call ordinary time (terrible name) and it is always the first Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is often used as an opportunity for preachers to explain away the complicated math of a three-in-one God with metaphors that often leave congregations more confused than when they arrived. On Trinity Sunday we usually read a passage contains examples of the three parts of the Godhead working together in such a way that it can help the preacher out. However, sermons on Trinity Sunday run the risk of sounding more like a lecture, or a dogmatic defense, than sounding like the proclamation of God’s living Word.

And for us today, the scripture for Trinity Sunday has taken on another ironic twist. This bit from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth contains some interesting language for what will be my second to last sermon in this church: Finally, farewell. Put things in order, listen to what I’ve said, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.

After serving God in this place for four years, this would not be a bad scripture to end with (Though I still have one Sunday left). It contains all the things I would want to leave you with much like what Paul wanted to leave with the Corinthians. If you live in peace with one another the God of love will be with you.

But Paul goes on to implore the gathered community to greet one another with a holy kiss, which sounds like doing a lot more than just living in peace with one another.

Holy kisses require an intimacy that many of us might find uncomfortable. To be clear: it doesn’t mean the pews turn into the back seats of parked cars at “make out point”, but it does imply a willingness to know and encounter the stranger as sister and the other as brother.

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I spent last week on the Easter Shore of Virginia with 40 United Methodists from the Staunton-Waynesboro Area for a mission trip. We represented a handful of churches and our youth were tasked with a number of work projects from reorganizing a Thrift Store to painting a dining hall to building a Habitat for Humanity House.

On our first night it was clear that this mission trip was going to be like a lot of others in that when we finally arrived and unpacked the vans, the youth broke off into their comfortable cliques from their respective churches. So we did what we always do: ice breakers and group activities. We quickly learned the names of everyone on the trip and random factoids that gave us glimpses of one another’s personalities and preferences.

But unlike other mission trips, by the first morning the home church groups started to fade and dissolve which left new friendships to determine the gatherings of our youth. I don’t know to what I can attribute the quick change and adaptation short of the fact that the youth greeted one another with “holy kisses” that first evening through questions and jokes and laughter such that they were in a new communion with one another by the next day.

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This was made abundantly evident through a number of situations, such as when we went kayaking and canoeing and the pairs did not know each other prior to arriving at camp, but it also showed up in more intimate and beautiful ways…

One of our youth, Grace, was the only girl from our church on the trip. The boys from St. John’s all love the same things: video games, Star Wars, and the internet, (they’re like younger versions of me) but Grace is not of the same persuasion. And it could have been easy for Grace to sulk in a corner and remain isolated, she could have retreated to the false sense of communion on her phone with friends back home, but instead Grace actively sought out new friends in this new place. She quickly bonded with a girl from another church and they discovered that they shared more in common than their similar sense of humor and quick wit: both of their mothers had breast cancer at the same time and were being treated at the same facility and had the same surgery.

Their bond over a shared experience was the holy kiss that filled them with the same type communion that connects the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Trinity.

There was a boy on the trip from a different church who, years ago, had an accident that resulted in severe burns over 40% of his body. I knew him before hand well enough to know that he is remarkably self-conscious about what his skin looks like and was afraid to get ready for bed in front of the other boys in my cabin. And on that first night, after all the games designed to bring us closer together, he tentatively lifted off his shirt to which one of the boys pointed and shouted for the rest of the cabin to hear. I immediately winced and prepared myself to intervene in order to protect the boy’s dignity but then I heard what the other boy had shouted: “Dude, that’s so cool!” The majority of the cabin immediately gathered around the young boy and he beamed with pride about his scars.

And the thing that had so often brought him shame and ridicule became a beautiful example of how the holy kiss of friendship filled our cabin with the same type of communion between the Trinity.

I don’t like to make comparisons like this, but our trip to the Eastern Shore was one of the best mission trips I’ve ever been on precisely because we connected with one another in a faithful and intimate way. Rather than scattered pockets of groups and cliques we got to know each other and therefore our work became that much more faithful and fruitful.

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When we are bold and brave enough to reach out in intimacy toward the church around us we connect with all the saints and we enter into the same friendship within the Trinity.

There is bravery and boldness and confidence in Paul’s willingness to say farewell to the church in Corinth. After doing the work to unite a community and sharing with them the Good News he could have held control over what they were doing from afar, he could have micromanaged every situation, but instead he knew that God’s church is far bigger than anything he could ever do. He was able to look at that collection of Christians and know that he could say farewell because they would thrive with or without him; after all the church didn’t belong to Paul, nor was it successful because of Paul. The church in Corinth thrived and was fruitful because it belonged to the Lord.

In addition to it being Trinity Sunday, we’ve also used part of our worship service today to thank the staff of St. John’s. They have all done tremendous work for and in this place whether it’s playing music on Sunday mornings, educating the preschoolers during the week, keeping everything safe and clean, or (in the case of our secretary) being the real boss around here. But their work has been productive and faithful because they are intimately connected with one another. They do not see their jobs as jobs. Instead they see what they do here as an extension of their community such that all of them will arrive early not just to get their tasks completed but to check in on one another and do whatever they can to help each other whether it connects to their work here or not.

But even beyond this church, beyond the wonderful people sitting in the pews this morning, God is the one who makes their work, and the work of the church possible. God has blessed them with unique gifts suited for making the kingdom come here on earth through their work at St. John’s. God is the one who has filled them with grace, love, and a sense of communion that makes possible the fruitfulness this church has embodied.

And that is what rests at the heart of Trinity Sunday. Not metaphors and dogmatic dissertations, but the communion and fellowship between the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That very communion, the friendship of the Trinity, is made manifest here every week, and whenever we gather together, as the church. It was there with us on the mission trip last week. It’s here between the staff members and all of their work. It rests in between us in these pews and is most certainly present at this table and in this meal.

We become God’s people, a people of holy kisses, when the pews of the sanctuary become avenues of connection instead of walls of division. We could easily remain isolated in our own comfortable boxes of experience, or we can do the good and bold and challenging work of Trinitarian communion – like the youth on our mission trip and the staff of this church, we can open our eyes to the fundamental reality of what God is calling our lives to look like, we can believe that we have been made one in Christ Jesus, and we can know that God is the one working in our lives binding us together for the work of the kingdom.

And so, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us. Amen.

On Working The Crowd

Matthew 21.8-9

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.

We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.

And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.

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You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.

You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?

Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.

Jesus knew how to work the crowd.

And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.

We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.

And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.

The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.

Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”

Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.

Such is the reality of worldly power.

But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.

Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?

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Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.

I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.

Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

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We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.

And that brings us to Romans 8.

Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.

But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.

When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.

Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.

Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.

You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.

Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.

And in so doing, we will suffer.

But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.

We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen

Long Live The Revolution!

Romans 8.12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

I love going home to visit family. There is just something special about visiting the old haunts and showing off a baby to make me really nostalgic for the past. Last week Lindsey and I spent some time up in Alexandria with my family, and it felt like nothing, and everything, had changed. For instance: When I went to the grocery store I bumped into a couple people I used to go to church with, but then when I drove out on Route 1 all the old buildings were gone and were replaced with town homes. Time, like a river, moves and though it looks the same, everything changes.

But perhaps the thing I enjoy most about going home is spending time with my grandmothers; Gran and Omi, both of whom are now great-grandmothers to Elijah. I know I’m biased, but I do have the best grandmothers in the world. One represents all the good southern hospitality that Petersburg, VA has ever had to offer and the other represents the refined qualities of old Europe with her charm and presence. They could not be more different from one another, and yet they are incredibly close.

Anyway, whenever I head home, whether it’s for a day or a week, I always plan on swinging by both of their homes unannounced. And last week was no exception.

Both visits were similar – we had the usual chit chat, we caught up on all the other family members, we shared stories about Staunton, and then we watched Elijah crawl all over the place. During our time together we learned about different health concerns, new aches and pains, and were unable to confront the reality that one day, perhaps not for some time, but nevertheless one day, they will no longer be here.

Each visit ended with both of them asking us to stay longer, while Elijah fussed for food or for a nap. And both visits ended with the exact same words from both of my grandmothers: “I just wish I had something to give you.” To which one looked around the room as if to give us something off the coffee table, and the other went upstairs and literally took a painting off the wall and put it in our hands.

I just wish I had something to give you.

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

Inheritance, being an heir, is always a complex matter. I wish it wasn’t true, but I’ve helped families prepare for funerals when more of the conversation around the table was focused on who was receiving what than what hymns or scripture would their now dead loved one want in their Service of Death and Resurrection. At the moment when a family needs to be together almost more than ever, they were already marking the territory of their hopeful inheritance.

Most of the time, we can’t choose what we inherit. Our parents or grandparents might think something has special significance for us, and therefore leave that item for us in the will, but rare are the times that we get to declare what we shall receive.

And there are others things that we have no choice about inheriting. We get the good and the bad, the responsibility and the privilege, the shame and the pride.

Frankly, three of things that determine our lives more than anything else come to us without a choice at all: We do not choose the family we are born into, we do not choose the color of our skin, and we do not choose the economic status of our families. We inherit all three without any action of our own, and those three things set us on a trajectory that we can rarely alter.

And of course there are things we inherit through the sands of time that we’d rather erase; like the celebrities who get their DNA tested for television shows about genealogy only to discover that their ancestors were part of the Nazi regime, or were slave owners, or participated in the near-eradication of the indigenous peoples in this country.

Inheritance is a complicated and confusing thing. Are we nothing more than the genes and the history we inherit? Can we break from the tyranny of expectation and what it means to be an heir? Who are we really?

St. Paul says that we are children and heirs of God!

Our inheritance, unlike that which we receive from our families, is totally different from anything that has ever existed. Moths and rust do not corrupt it; thieves cannot break in and steal it. It cannot be lost in the fall of the stock market, or burned in the night, or taken by the government in the so-called death tax.

Our inheritance is our hope while everything else appears to fail. It promises a future when we cannot imagine there being anything left for us in this life.

            It is nothing short of the glory of the Lord.

However, and this is a big however, there is more to this inheritance than smiles and rainbows and resurrection. It comforts AND it afflicts.

We receive something so remarkable and inexplicable as heirs with Christ, but it also comes with a cost. Receiving this gift puts at risk our financial security, our reputation, our social position, our friends, our family, our everything.

This is the revolution of faith.

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We are fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, we shall receive resurrection, but we also suffer with the Lord.

The time is coming, and is indeed here, when the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be raised high. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and do not put your trust in things that will fade away with the blowing of the wind. You need only faith the size of a mustard seed. Ask you shall receive. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will live.

Have you ever heard anything more revolutionary in your lives?

Everything about our existence changes with the inheritance of the Lord: Our finances change when we realize that all we receive first comes from the Lord. Our families change when we realize that all who do the will of God are our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Our worldviews change when we realize that God is contending against the powers and principalities here and now.

All that we held so near and dear before will wash away when the tide of life comes in. Moths will eat away at the fabric of our perspectives, thieves will steal the wealth that we think determines everything, but there is one thing that endures forever: Jesus Christ.

This is nothing short of revolutionary. And to be honest, it’s gotten a lot of people killed throughout the centuries, including the One in whom we lie and move.

That’s one of the things we struggle to remember, here in our comfortable Christianity; Jesus was a revolutionary. He was not killed for loving too much. He was killed for calling into question who was really in charge, for confronting the elite about not taking care of the poor and the marginalized, and for telling the truth.

Jesus was a revolutionary and calls us to join the revolution.

            But here in Staunton, we don’t feel very revolutionary.

We like what we have: good schools, perfectly manicured lawns, children that come home to visit, vacations, golf courses, solid retirement portfolios. We can’t imagine being called to leave our families, or go to prison, or even lose our lives for the sake of the gospel. Why do we need to risk anything when we already have everything we want?

We, the people who have this remarkable inheritance through the Lord, can take all kinds of risks that the rest of the world fears. We know where all of our gifts really come from and that we can give them away, we know that our time is a fleeting and precious thing that we can give away, we know that even our lives are worth giving away because they were first given to us.

We can, and should, be reckless with our lives because we can afford to be. We’ve been given the greatest inheritance in the history of the world. Why aren’t we doing anything with it?

There was an uncle who had amassed a great fortune throughout his life, he started his own business and invested wisely, but had no children to leave his wealth to. However, he did have a couple nieces and nephews who patiently waited with baited breath for him to die so they could reap the benefits of the inheritance. While they should have been committing themselves to their educations and their careers, they just daydreamed about what they would do with the money as soon as their uncle died.

And then he did.

The siblings all met with the family lawyer after the funeral, trying their best to appear mournful while hiding smiles of utmost glee. The lawyer took his time reading through the important legal jargon until he came to the inheritance: To my nieces and nephews I leave… they gripped the leather chairs with anticipation… my library.

“Library?” they all thought silently though one of them accidentally shouted it out loud. “What about our money?!?!”

They all left in a storm of rage angered beyond belief, but the youngest nephew waited behind, and he signed for the inheritance library, and gave the lawyer the address of his house.

For days he unpacked box after box of books and started stacking them wherever he could. It began feeling like the books were becoming the new wallpaper, and for years they just sat their collecting dust. And the longer they remained, the more the man resented the books.

His life continued on, he got married, had a few kids, got divorced, lost the job, and started spending all his time at home. As he aged he felt like the books were there to taunt him, mocking him from every corner. And then one day, it a fit of built-up rage, he ran to the nearest stack, grabbed the top-most book and threw it across the room.

WHAM! The hardback left a perfect rectangular indentation in the wall from the force of the throw while the aging man breathed heavily with his hands clenched tightly together. He then slowly walked over to the wall to pick up the remaining remnants of the book to throw them away when he noticed something strange on the floor: a couple $100 bills.

It only took a moment, the slightest measure of time, before he realized what he had just discovered. The missing fortune of his uncle was in the library of books, hidden in between the covers, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We are joint heirs with Christ, and have received an everlasting inheritance that is our present and future glory! Are we letting this inheritance gather dust on the bookshelves of our lives? Do we know what we’ve received?!

God is bold and generous with reckless abandon to the point of giving his only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life. God is concerned with the cries of the needy and plight of the marginalized. God brings down the mighty and raises the lowly.

And so should we.

            Long live the revolution! Amen.

On Using Bad Words In Church

Romans 6.1-11

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

What’s the worst word you can imagine hearing from the pulpit? In a world where you can get away with saying and doing just about anything, is the church still a sacred place untainted by the desires of the world? There are plenty of strange and difficult and downright awful stories from scripture that we can read from the lectern, but don’t you think the pulpit should remain nice and clean?

During the season of Lent, we confront our finitude, our sinfulness, and our total dependence on the Lord. It is a tough time for us comfortable Christians, because these are exactly the types of things that many of us would rather avoid.

Gone are the days when we could expect to hear about sin and be challenged and convicted out of it. Gone are the days when we could affirm our finite lives without needing the stark reminder of ashes on our foreheads once a year.

Today, God has been reduced to a bumper-stickered and hallmarked version of love. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Today, church is not the place for judgment and for talk about sin. Regardless of their primacy in scripture, we would all be happier if we could avoid them.

The same holds true for foul language.

Right?

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This is definitely not the place for someone like me to stand in front of people like you and use words that are forbidden from the radio and are relegated to rated-R movies.

As I heard someone say recently, “Preacher, there are just some things you don’t talk about it church.”

There is a seemingly endless list of things not to talk about in church; things like politics, abortion, divorce, war, sex, taxes, just to name a few. But foul language, language that results in soap-in-the-mouth discipline, is a particularly poignant thing to avoid in church.

And I have a friend in ministry who has completely ignored this accepted fact.

He loves to use foul language from the pulpit. Whether it’s the Christmas Eve sermon and the church is filled with young families who only show up for one worship service a year, or an Ash Wednesday service where only the die-hard Christians come out, he’s known for his colorful language. He’ll tell you that he uses those particular words in order to enhance the sermon in such a way that it will become more memorable and hit closer to home.

And a lot of the people at his church can’t stand it.

“Why does he feel like he has to resort to such awful language?” “The church deserves better than this.” “Does he talk to his mother that way?”

And, I think, they have a point. When the language used becomes more memorable or more important than what is being proclaimed, something has fallen a part. For instance: His recent Ash Wednesday sermon was titled “God Doesn’t Give A @#$%” I read it and listened to it online, it was phenomenal. The theology and the proclamation were remarkably faithful to the One who is faithful to us. But a few of the people from the church called me afterward and couldn’t even begin to express what the sermon was about at all; they were still hung up on the title.

However, there is a value to using some bad words in church.

During the season of Lent, this time after Epiphany but before Easter, there is a specific word that we avoid at all costs. It’s really bad. The word is… well, I’m not supposed to say it. Um, how can I do this…

Okay, there’s this great song by Ray Stevens called the Mississippi Squirrel Revival, maybe you’ve heard it, and part of it goes like this: The day the squirrel went berserk // In the First Self-Righteous Church // In the sleepy little town of Pascagoula // It was a fight for survival // That broke out in revival // They were jumpin’ pews and shoutin’ @#$%^&*!”

You know the word I’m talking about? You might not have even noticed it, but we have not said the “H” word in worship since before Ash Wednesday. It has not been read from the lectern, it has not been hidden in one of the verses from our hymns, and I certainly haven’t used it from the pulpit.

We purposely avoid the word during Lent so that when we shout it out on Easter it will mean all that much more. We specifically deprive ourselves of this important and powerful word to create a longing for the realization of all that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus promises to us and to the world.

And there’s another bad “H” word that we need to talk about: Hell.

I don’t mean the place filled with fire and a red-toned, frighteningly tall, horned figure with a trident and a bifurcated tail. I mean using “hell” as an expression.

Paul writes: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Now, what I’m about to say will probably get me in trouble, but so be it. That little ending, the “by no means” just doesn’t cut it. In Greek the expression is “me genotio” and it is way more emphatic than “by no means.” Some translations have it as “God forbid” or “Definitely not” but even both of those miss the mark.

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In what we read last week, Paul wrote: “When sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And it’s as if Paul knew that people would hear those words and say, “Dude, that’s awesome! If grace abounds all the more when sin increases, then lets keep the sins rolling!”

And here is Paul’s response: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

Our lives have changed forever. We can’t just retreat to the ways of the past because grace abounds. God in Christ has made in us a new creation! The gift of God in Christ on the cross was, and is, such that we are forever freed from the tyranny of sin and death. Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

But that’s not the last bad word we’re going to talk about today. No, we still need to talk about “Sin” and “Death.” Perhaps two of the worst words that can ever be used in church. And you can tell they’re bad word precisely because of how rarely they are used in a place like this.

We need to talk about these bad words, not because they are normal parts of human experience, but because they are false powers that rule over us. That’s how Paul understood them: Sin reigns, Death has dominion.

You need only turn on the television for five minutes in the evening to see how true this really is: The nighty News hour is filled to the brim with the failures and faults and sins of other people; The Republican Party failed to procure their dream for American Healthcare. Left Wing activists went on a violent strike in another major city. Augusta County citizen receives life sentence for horrible crime. North Korea has another failed missile test but they are getting closer to developing their own weapons of mass destruction. The market fluctuated with each tweet from our president. Test scores have fallen in local school leading to speculation that it will close… All of them are negative.

And then when they go to a commercial break we are bombarded by products designed to make us believe that we can and will live forever; Use this cream and your wrinkles will disappear. Invest in this company and you will never have to worry about money. Go on this vacation and you will feel happy and healthy like the people running on the beach or tanning by the pool.

We live under the tyranny of sin and death. But Paul says this should not be so!

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We who have been baptized into Christ have been crucified with Christ. Our sinful selves are put to death on the Cross so that we will no longer be slaves to the bad words of Sin and Death.

Long ago, we would have known this without Paul having to remind us. Baptisms, long ago, were all about death. That’s where the Baptists beat us today, I’m sorry to say. When the Baptists baptize, they fully submerge people under water. And, depending on the faithfulness of the pastor, the soon-to-be-new Christian might be held under for quite a long time.

You would’ve missed the baptism to death if you were with us in Alexandria when Elijah was baptized. No, we didn’t hold him under a tub of water to embody the death to sin. No, we didn’t give him some old and tattered gown to wear. Elijah looked perfect in his little khakis, and button-up shirt, and bow-tie, and mustard-colored cardigan. Elijah was sprinkled with water, and the perfectly portioned amount of holy oil was smeared in the shape of the cross on his forehead. And, he was carried out to the congregation and held up high by the same preacher who curses too much.

We miss the death to sin in our baptisms. But we have a member of our lectionary bible study who really gets it. Judy had avoided church for decades before God grabbed her by the heart and said, “Follow me.” She brought her questions and her doubts to her preacher, and after a time she felt her heart strangely warmed and felt moved to be baptized.

Unlike babes in the United Methodist Church, Judy marched up to the giant baptismal font and prepared to jump into the all-too-cold water. And outside, through the multicolored stained glass windows, a thunderstorm was brewing.

Judy slowly descended into the water, and with cracks of thunder in the distance the preacher plunged her into the depths of death to sin. I like to imagine that if she opened her eyes underwater, even for the briefest of moments, she would have seen a flash of lighting that illuminated the entire congregation. The whole moment felt as if the rule of Sin and Death, the dominion of the devil himself, was making one final dash to keep her under their control. But alas, the grace of Jesus Christ abounded all the more, and she arose from the water dead to sin and death.

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? HELL NO!

God has changed us! Not just through the waters of our baptisms, not just through the bread that we break and the cup from which we drink, but also through the death of Jesus on the cross. It changes everything! This gift transforms our very lives to the point that we should feel compelled not to fall back into the old ways, to the old self, ruled by Sin and Death.

But we know the truth: we do fall back. We know that those who are sent to prison for horrible crimes have an all too high likelihood of returning one day. We know that those caught in adultery tend to habitually cheat for the rest of their lives. We know that even the strongest member of an AA group can fall off the wagon.

We know that we fall back.

We say “never again” to so many thing only to have them come right back around. We say never again to the anger, to the cigarette, to the bottle, to the cheating, to the lying, to the hatred, to the racism, to the homophobia, to the elitism, to the narcissism, to defeatism, to a great number of things.

            They never stop.

            The fact that they never stop is evidence of the power of Sin in this world, which reigns in Death.

But our lives have been changed! God has wiped away the old self and clothed us with the new. God washed away our insecurities and insufficiencies and said, “My grace is enough.” God was nailed to the hard wood of the cross to die a death that we might die in our baptism. God was raised from the dead as we were brought forth from the water to live a resurrected and holy life.

            The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So we also must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO! Amen.

Devotional – Ephesians 5.14

Ephesians 5.14

Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

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On April 4th, 1742 Charles Wesley, the musically inclined younger brother of John Wesley, was invited to preach at St. Mary’s in Oxford. It was his first, and last, occasion for preaching there. His text was Ephesians 5.14 (“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”), and his message most likely caused a significant amount of resentment among those in attendance.

Throughout the sermon, Charles Wesley interprets the “sleep” from Ephesians as the natural state of humanity; it is the place where we are in light of Adam’s sin that has passed on to the world. But God calls each human to wake up from this dreadful sleep, repent, and live into the fullness of holiness made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a sense, it did what all sermons are supposed to do: it faithfully proclaimed God’s revealed word in a way that was applicable and approachable to all with ears to hear. However, Charles made plain the point that those in attendance, the religious elite of the day, had fallen asleep to God’s commands and that it was time for them to wake up.

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To paraphrase: “In what state is your soul? If God required you to die right now for the sake of the Gospel, would you be ready? Have you fought the good fight and kept the faith? Have you put off the old life and put on the new? Are you clothed with Christ? Do you have oil in your lamp and grace in your heart? Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength? Do you believe that God is moving in a through you in all that you do? Are you really a Christian? If any of these questions offend you, be assured that you are not a Christian, nor do you desire to be one. The time has come to wake up!”

It’s no wonder he was never invited back to preach.

However, Charles’ questions still ring through the centuries and resonate in our hearts today. Are we alive to our faith? Are we clothed with Christ? Do we really love God and neighbor? Are we Christians at all?

Lent is the time to confront our true natures and ask if we have fallen asleep in our faith, or if we have been raised from the old life into the new. For Christ, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, is calling us to wake up. Christ compels us to leave the old life behind, the life defined by death and sin. Instead, Christ pushes us to clothe ourselves in our baptisms, live into the reality of resurrected life here and now, and wake up!

Stuck In The Bushes

Romans 5.12-21

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned – sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in the life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I take a lot of pride in my ability to communicate with people of different age groups. On any given week I will spend time explaining theology to five year olds in our preschool, fifteen year olds in our youth group, 50 year olds in our bible study, and then the rest of you on Sunday morning. It is definitely a challenge taking ideas from the likes of Paul and proclaiming them in a way that can be appreciated for the here and now for the young and old.

But sometimes, I fail.

Like the time I tried to address the moral and ethical dilemmas of Capital Punishment to our youth group one night, to the times I’ve tried to proclaim the strange complexity of confronting our finitude on Ash Wednesday to our preschoolers, to the times I’ve told some of our much older adults that one must have the faith of a child to inherit the kingdom of God.

Communicating the gospel, sharing the Good News, is a challenge, and I definitely failed once when we were on our mission trip to West Virginia a couple summers back. Picture it, if you can: It is hotter than blazes outside, and I’m stuck in a tiny kitchen surrounded by teenagers who would rather be instagramming and snap chatting one another than cleaning a floor or painting a ceiling. And it was silent.

So I did what I do: I started asking questions…

“What’s your favorite story from the bible?”

One of our boys immediately said something about David defeating Goliath. The Davidic story will forever rest in the hearts of prepubescent boys who struggle with how rapidly the girls are growing while they remain the same.

A boy from another church said, “Well, I kinda like the one about, you know, Jesus feeding people?” while saliva poured out of his mouth as he stared at the cooler in the corner filled with our lunches.

A girl from a different church said, “I’ve always been rather captivated by Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee.” To which I made a mental note to bring this up with her youth group later in the evening. No sensible teenage girl should be thinking about water turning into wine, and certainly not when Jesus has anything to do with it.

We went on and on, and then it was my turn to answer. “Well” I said, “It’s not my favorite story, but I’ve always loved this little detail at the beginning of the bible, in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden with a choice. They could choose to live in perfect harmony with God and God’s creation, with each other, free from sin and free from death. But Adam and Eve made the wrong choice, they wanted to be like God, and as soon as they tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked.

“But here’s the part that gets me every time. Almost as soon as they sin, they heard the sound of God walking in the garden and they both sprinted for the bushes. But God called out, ‘Where are you Adam? Where are you Eve?’ After waiting for a few moments, Adam popped his little head out of the bushes, and told God that he was hiding because he was naked and afraid.”

To which God said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’

“Isn’t that hilarious?” – The teenagers had all stopped working while I was sharing the story, and now they were all staring at me with eyebrows askew. I could hear the paint dripping off their brushes onto the floor as if even the crickets were too concerned to chirp. One of the boys finally broke the silence to say, “Um… I don’t think it’s very funny. If I were naked and God came looking for me, I’d run for the bushes too!”

Do we know this old, old, story? Do we know what sin is? Do we know what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

What kind of stories and habits and beliefs do we want to pass on to the coming generations? I feel like I am forever hearing about the good ol’ days when “we knew our bibles” and “we would’ve gone to school with snow like this when I was a kid” and “we entertained ourselves with our imaginations and not a screen in our pockets.”

Do we wish that things could go back to the way they were? Are we worried about the future that we are handing to our children?

We can talk and talk about what we want to pass on, what we hope to engender, but if we don’t know our story, if we don’t know where we came from, how in the world can we even hope to take a step in the right direction?

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Just as sin came into the world through one man… Paul assumes that we know the story, that we know the details of the Garden. He does not waste lines in his letter rehashing the characters and the questions, he gets right to the point: Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve. They, and therefore we, broke the covenant with God. The transition from God’s rule to the rule of sin and death came into the world because of our rebellious and disobedient desires.

This is our condition. There is no going back. Fear and shame and anger and disappointment are our lives. We are, in a sense, stuck in the bushes for good, hoping that God will not come looking for us.

We are in the bushes. And Lent is a great time to ask the question: Why? Which of the commandments have we broken? Did we work on the Sabbath? Have we hated our mothers or our fathers? Did we covet something that did not belong to us? An object, a job, or God forbid, a person?

How would we respond if we heard God walking toward us in the middle of our sin? We, like Adam and like that boy on the mission trip, would run for the bushes.

Paul assumes that we know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden because it is OUR story! Adam’s sin is our sin, and it not only divided us from God, but also brought death into the world, which spread like a disease. This is Paul’s point, and he says it in these few verses over and over again.

We are trapped in sin and death and we are stuck in the bushes. That’s the story of the Garden. Is this what we want to pass on?

Truly I tell you, we cannot know who we are to be, if we do not know our story. This inexhaustible, unexplainable, indescribable moment from the beginning is who we are. It is the story of how the life of order fell into disorder. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story.

Adam brought the entirety of humanity down, down to the depths of death and destruction. Jesus, however, is the new way who is able to create a new humanity.

The promise of a good and remade and hopeful future comes from the old story that is forever new. The story of our death, and then the death that freed us from sin and death.

In Jesus Christ our stories are made new; God, as the author of salvation, takes up the pen and starts a new chapter through the life, death, and resurrection of his son. This is the story that those who are coming, the one who will follow us, need to hear. This is the story we need to share. We need to pray for the courage to shout this story from the rooftops as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

The only way to victory, the way to upend what was done in the Garden, is through the cross. We might think of a different way, a more efficient and less taxing way, but the way of the cross is the WAY that Christ defeated death.

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But this is not an easy story to tell. The message and value of the cross comes with a cost. It is difficult, it is selfless, and frankly it is un-American. Today, we would rather surround the young with lessons that teach very different values: get the job, earn as much as you can, find the right spouse, buy the car, lose the weight, invest in the right companies, bring 2.5 children into the world, purchase the perfect house, and you will be free and life will be perfect.

That’s the story we tell. And it’s a lie! It’s all a lie! None of these things can give life. They cannot give us the identity and purpose and hope we so desire. The job will change, the money will disappear, the spouse will grow old, the body will too, the companies will falter, the car will rust, the children will not listen; Sin and Death corrupt them all.

But there is nevertheless Good News, there is a way out of the bondage that was brought into the world by the one we call Adam. We are freed through the one we call Christ.

We are stuck in the bushes of our own sin and shame. But Christ comes to us in the Garden of our own demise without a question, but a call. Jesus does not ask us who told us we were sinning, Jesus says follow me. Follow me to Galilee, follow me to Gethsemane, follow me to Calvary.

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Sin has increased in this world and in our lives, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ has abounded all the more.

The story, our story, began in the Garden, but it did not end there. It continued through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, weaved through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph. It rose through the power of David and Solomon, and fell through the failure of God’s people worshipping idols. It danced through the prophets who remained faithful to the Lord, it endured droughts and famines, it saw suffering and sadness. It connected the lives of the powerful with the powerless, it brought down the high and lifted up the lowly.

It was born again in a manger in a small town called Bethlehem; it trudged through the towns of Galilee and sailed over the sea. It walked through the streets of Jerusalem and turned over the tables at the Temple. It was dragged before the council and the ruling elite. It was marched up to a hill and nailed to a cross. It was silent in a tomb for three days. And it broke free from the chains of sin and death.

That is the story. It is a story worth telling over and over again; because in it we discover who we are and whose we are. In it we see ourselves stuck in the bushes being beckoned by Jesus to follow him. And in it we realize that it is not just a story, nor even our story, but THE story. Amen.

 

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