The Story Within The Story

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22, Psalm 124, James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the conundrum of context, Lupin, sacrificial honesty, reading between the lines, the manifestation of memory, hermeneutical tools, The Brothers Zahl, stumbling blocks, and selfishness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Story Within The Story

If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

An Understanding Mind

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind

Expect The Unexpected

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. 

But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.

Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.

Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.

It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.

“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”

As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.

And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.

“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”

A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people. 

Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.

And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.

God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.

Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.

Because none of us deserve him. 

She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even. 

Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.

In other words, God likes crowded tables.

There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.

But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?

Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.

And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.

Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”

When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”

And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”

Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.

In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.

Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.

The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.

There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.

And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.

I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since. 

A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.

And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.

Until that night.

The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”

The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”

So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help. 

She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.

They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”

He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her. 

She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in. 

Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.

We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.

But that is the heart of grace.

We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.

People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us. 

God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.

God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace. 

One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate. 

And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen. 

Those Who Can’t Teach, Do

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 1.20-33, Psalm 19, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Street Church, wisdom, frightening faith, vision processing, preaching cliches, the sanctity of silence, communal affirmation, cross bearing, the present of presence, and mic drop moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Those Who Can’t Teach, Do

People Are People Are People

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23 , Psalm 125, James 2.1-10, 14-17, Mark 7.24-37). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including radio jokes, extension ministries, vacation reads, library organization, meme material, complex personalities, do goodery, collective homilies, partiality, crumbly faith, and the little things of life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: People Are People Are People

A Place At The Table

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things. 

One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.

And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands. 

Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t. 

So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”

These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.

How does Jesus respond?

“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”

And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:

“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”

It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”

Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.

Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.

Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.

And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?

If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”

We are what’s wrong with the world.

Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.

How can we fix what’s wrong within us?

Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.

Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.

And while some people love it, others hate it.

Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”

It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.

Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.

The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.

The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?

The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.

And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.

There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.

Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.

And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”

A small uproar ensued.

And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.

And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.

What, then, are we called to do?

*Ladder Demonstration*

In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.

Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. 

Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?

The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.

And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.

Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.

The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!

When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.

Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.

In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news. 

There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.

It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!

In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…

Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.

In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen. 

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. 

What’s right with the church?

That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.

The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?

Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.

It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites. 

Or so I’ve been told.

There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!

Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.

Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”

Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”

And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.

So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.

“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”

It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.

I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.

I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”

And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”

What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on. 

The church is broken because it is filled with broken people. 

And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!

There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.

I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.

As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.

I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.

In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences. 

It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.

As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.

Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel. 

Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.

But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.

But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.

The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.

But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.

We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough. 

The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.

That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless. 

The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.

We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God. 

We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place. 

In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace. 

Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction. 

Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.

Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.

What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.

This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.

So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.

And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be. 

How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! 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. 

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.