The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Coronatide, NOVA, the case for Karl Barth, narrative theology, dreamers of dreams, church leadership as evangelism, different righteousnesses, exegetical grammar, and God’s oddness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

Everything Happens

Romans 8.28, 31-39

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

Everything happens for a reason. We say something like that to bring comfort to people in the midst of uncertainty, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances mostly because we don’t know what else to say. It is a remarkably common expression among Christian-types and it’s not in the Bible.

Years ago I received a phone call that a woman in my church was in her final moments. She had been suffering from a great number of chronic problems for the better part of two decades and most of her family had not expected for her to live as long as she did. We all stood around her bed together praying and sharing those final moments before she died. 

A few days later, on the eve of her funeral, her now widower husband fell down the steps in front of their house after returning from the wake and was rushed to the hospital. He needed a few days to recover and we delayed his wife’s funeral until he was better. Eventually he sat in the pews with surrounded by his family and worshipped with the rest of us as we gave thanks to God for his wife.

After the burial and reception he returned to his now empty house complaining of our tired he was and after he went to bed, he never woke up again.

A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.

When I got the call about his death, having only seen him the day before, I rushed to the house to meet with the family who were still in town from the wife’s funeral. And one by one I watched and listened as every single family member exchanged a version of “everything happens for a reason.” 

“God just needed another angel in heaven.”

“God wanted them to be married in heaven just like they were married on earth.”

“This was all part of God’s plan.”

And the more I heard it the more my blood boiled. But before I had a chance to blurt out something pastors aren’t supposed to say, one of the couple’s daughters beat me to it.

“That’s BS” she stammered.

Though she didn’t use the acronym.

“If this was all part of God’s plan, then why did God take away my Mommy and Daddy so quickly? Why would God do that to me?”

And that’s when the whole room turned to me, the pastor, the so-called expert on God.

So I said, “If there is a reason for everything, if God killed both of them on purpose, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.”

When we throw out trite and cliche sentences like, “everything happens for a reason” it puts all of the responsibility of every single little thing entirely upon God. 

It makes God into a monster.

The author of car crashes, incurable childhood cancers, and unending wars.

And yet, more often than not, it is our go-to expression when we don’t know what else to say. 

If there are two things that we, as human beings, just can’t stand they are mystery and silence. It’s no wonder therefore that when we face a situation that has no explanation we get as far away from mysterious silence as we possibly can by saying something we think is helpful. We both want to have an answer for every question and we want to be able to get out of uncomfortable moments when we don’t know what to say.

The problem with all of that is we think we’re helping someone when we’re actually making things worse.

Anyone who claims that everything happens for a reason are those who believe God wills every single horrific death, every incurable diagnosis, and even something like the Coronavirus. They see and imagine God as some great puppeteer in the sky instituting every possible contingency such that it must be this way at all times no matter what.

And if that’s true, then every rape, every murder, every act of child abuse or neglect, every war, every storm or earthquake, are all part of God’s plan.

To those who believe that is the case, the response from the daughter whose parents died should suffice.

In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the unimaginable tsunami that wrecked South Asia back in 2015. The article was focused on a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of all his efforts, which included swimming in the rolling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to save his wife or any of his four children from drowning in the waters. The father recounted the names of his children and then, overwhelmed by his grief, sobbed to the reporter, “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here… he will save us” but I couldn’t do it.”

David Hart wonders, in his book, If you had the chance to speak to the father in the moment of his deepest pain, what would you say? Hart then argues that only idiots would have approached the father with trite and empty theological expressions like: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s cosmic plan” or “It’s okay this was God’s design” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Most of us, Hart believes, would have the good sense not to talk like that to the father. And then he takes it one step forward. “And this should tell us something. For if we think is shamefully foolish and cruel to say things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And to take it one step even further, if we mustn’t say things like that to such a father, then we ought never to say them about God. 

St Paul wrote to the early church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Which, for many, justifies the desire to say “everything happens for a reason.”

And yet we so often forget that this verse is the beginning of Paul’s big crescendo to one of the texts we use most often at funeral – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

What we miss in that profound and powerful declaration is that there are powers and principalities contending against God in this life.

That is, death is something that is trying to separate us from God, but God wins in the end. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated in Christ Jesus, and will ultimately destroy forever in the New Jerusalem. 

That is, to put a fine note on it, the whole point of the Gospel in the first place. 

It would then be nothing but ridiculous for God to delight or even ordain the deaths of those whom he loves for it would run counter to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”

God does not want bad things to happen to us. But bad things do happen in this fallen and fallible world we find ourselves in. We, all of us, make choices we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. We contribute in ways both big and small to the tremendous suffering in the world. From delighting in being able to purchase a banana whenever we want from the grocery store (a banana that requires low waged work, an absurd amount of fossils fuel, and harmful chemicals to make it to our plate) to texting while we drive (which distracts us from the kid running into the street to grab his wayward basketball) to a great number of other scenarios. 

Some of the suffering of the world is willed, but not by God. It is willed by us in our relentless pursuit of whatever we think we deserve.

And yet a fair amount of suffering in the world exists not because of us or God, things just happen without explanation

And when those things occurs, whether willed by human beings or random events in creation, we do well to close our mouths and rest in the knowledge that God has defeated death.

Does that erase death’s sting here and now? Of course not, death always hurts.

But as Christians, we know how the story ends, we know that those we lose in life will be waiting for us at the Supper of the Lamb surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us. 

The “for good” that God works to achieve is the proclamation that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That even in our suffering, even in our deaths, God is with us.

Look, I hear it a lot in my line of work, people showing up at the church or calling me on the phone to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?”

The loss of a child. The loss of a job. The loss of health.

And for as many times as I have heard questions about God’s purposes behind the purposeless moments in life, I’ve heard from just as many people wondering, “What can I possibly say to someone in their suffering, in their loss?”

Sometimes the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. As hard as it might be to sit with someone else in their pain and in their suffering, just listening to them is far better than trying to fill the time with trite and meaningless aphorisms. At the very least, it’s the most faithful thing we can do.

Life is hard and all sorts of things happen without explanation. I know that might not sound very pastoral, but it’s true. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came to the church one morning in your grief or suffering or pain, and you got down on your knees to pray to God when all of the sudden you heard a voice booming from the heavens declaring, “I”M DOING THIS TO YOU ON PURPOSE! THIS IS PART OF MY PLAN!”

If that’s who God is, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.

Thankfully, that’s not who God is. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. God is the author of salvation and not the dictator of death. God is the one who would do everything, and already did, to make sure that nothing, truly nothing, could ever separate us from the his divine love.

Our hope is not contingent on finding reasons to explain everything that happens – instead our hope is built on Christ who shows us in his life, death, and resurrection that God is with us, always. 

And there’s nothing we can do about it. 

For I am convinced, like Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That’s the gospel.

Jesus is the reason that even when things happen, we are not abandoned. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Don’t Lie

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 17.1-7, 15, Romans 9.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Biblical character identification, new names, God’s marks, pentecostal prayers, divine time, false witness, Pauline anguish, faithful food, better education, and bigger tables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Lie

The Kingdom of Judgment

Matthew 13.47-50

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

We’ve come to the end.

Both the end of our series on the parables of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ proclamation, parabolically, about the end of all things.

The Kingdom is like a net that catches everything so that the angels can sort out the evil from the righteous.

This is a story about judgment.

And we don’t like judgement.

You know, judge not lest ye be judged and all that…

But I think it’s more that we like to talk about not being judgmental while actually being addicted to the judgments we make against ourselves and others.

Consider this: How many conversations have you had recently about people and their willingness or unwillingness to wear masks?

It’s notable that, having talked at length about the Kingdom, yeast and seeds and weeds, Jesus ends the entire sequence of these parables with a story about fishing. 

It is an ending about the end.

Jesus has been laying it on thick for the crowds and for the disciples. But then we encounter, “So it will be at the end of the age” – the Eschaton, a final period on the whole kit and caboodle.

This is the moment in which all of the stories about the Kingdom are summed up by the Lord of lords.

Listen – The Kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches everything. And, only when the net is full, is it brought ashore and the good are put into baskets while the bad are left on the sand. So it will be at the end of the age. My angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sounds like a party, right?

The Kingdom is like a net. Strangely enough the net, SAGENE in Greek, is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that only appears once in the entirety of the New Testament. 

It’s very very rare.

Nevertheless, the net here is one dragged through the water indiscriminately taking up everything in its path.

It is not the tiny net I carry on my fly fishing bag to help collect the one solitary fish I’ve been trying to reel in for fifteen minutes.

It’s more like a trawler that picks up everything.

And everything means everything. Not only fish but also seaweed, trash, and other oceanic items. 

This, of course, runs counter to how we often imagine the fishing stories from Jesus and the way we portray them in Children’s Bibles. 

Jesus says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!”

Which is all to say, just as the net fetches out everything it meets in the sea, so too the Kingdom fetches out everything in the world. When Jesus proclaims that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, they are not replacements for the old ones, we don’t get zapped from one to the other – they are transfigurations of them.

Jesus doesn’t abandon planet earth to go stake out a claim somewhere else, he raises creation and glorifies it.

The totality of the net might sound like an overstatement, but the word for fish doesn’t actually appear in the Greek – even though plenty of translators have opted to stick it in.

Its just says the the net was tossed into the sea and caught everything.

This means, parabolically speaking, that everything and everyone gets swept up into it, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the poor and the powerful.

There is a sorting to come, we cannot ignore that, but not before the net draws everything in. While the net is being dragged behind the boat, doing its work, judgment is nowhere to be found. Which is a reminder for those of us called the church that the kingdom, while still in this world, does nobody any good while remaining in the judgment business.

But judgement, of course, is what we do best!

It’s been one of the favorite pastimes of the church since the very beginning. The practice of tossing out the bad apples while the net is still int he ate drawing everything in has been everybody’s preferred method of “furthering the Kingdom.”

Everybody’s, that is, except Jesus.

Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks of sitting in the parables to realize how much of a miracle it is that the church has made it this far all the while confusing the words of the divine Word incarnate.

We have heaping examples how how judgmental the church has been, all while Jesus has been doing his best to drag the net of the kingdom across the ocean floor of our existence.

Consider how adulterers, murders, and philanderers have been paraded out of both pulpit and sanctuary. But its not even just the really bad sins we hold over the heads of others: we dismiss the liars and the cheats, the questionable and the bizarre. 

Throughout the centuries we have picked our particular flavors of allowable and unallowable all under the auspices of keeping the good in and the bad out.

And what do we have to show for it?

Now, if we talk about sin in church at all, we do so in a way that denies our sinfulness while highlighting the sins of others. We’ve taken down the mirror of the Gospel, the law that accuses us dead in our sins, and instead we wag our fingers at those who don’t align with what we think is good and right and true.

And, I must confess, I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone else. I mean: Do you know how much fun it is to belittle and bemoan televangelists for the wildly inappropriate theology they drop on their dozing congregations? Do you know why it’s so fun? Because it makes me feel better about myself!

We love to point out the sins in others all the while ignoring our own.

But Jesus? Jesus didn’t shy away from sinners. So why should we?

Of course, we might think that the church welcomes sinners. But we don’t. At least, not really. We’re only inclined to welcome the sinful so long as their sins aren’t of much consequence and their willing to repent and never fall back into their sinfulness.

Should we let people get away with their sins? Is that what Jesus wants? A church full of worthless sinners failing in their inability to be good?

Yeah, kind of. 

It’s not so much about letting people get away with it, but recognizing the real condition of our condition such that we see salvation isn’t possible on our own. We don’t have the capacity, on our own, to turn it all around. It’s only ever possible because of the Spirit working in us and through us.

Consider Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians: If there had been a law, a rule, that could have saved us then it should have already happened. 

We can change, we can get better. But it’s God who does that work and, like the Kingdom, it’s rather mysterious. There’s no good answer to why one person is better at dropping a bad habit than someone else. There’s no good answer to why someone gets through grief faster than someone else. 

God works and we know not how. It is, to make the point even finer, a mystery.

The church, at her best, is merely a sacrament of God’s Kingdom, an outward sign of the mystery in the world. It is like a version of the net, doing its best to sweep through the dark waters of life, collecting anything and everything.

What happens next is entirely up to God.

And thats when the real judgement begins…

The plunder is brought to shore to sort out, in Jesus’ words, the good from the bad. What makes the good good and the bad bad? Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with here, but its entirely in the eyes of the one who tossed out the net in the first place. That is: Jesus is the one who decides what goes in the basket and what get left on the sand.

Notice, again, that the separation only occurs after the net has already done its job, only after the mystery of the Kingdom has come to fruition, only after the power of Jesus’ reconciling work. 

Everyone who comes before the divine sorting, if we want to call it that, has already been judged by the Judge who came to be judged in our place.

The whole world, the all the Jesus draws into himself, is accepted in the Beloved.

The forgiveness of wrongs, the rectification of sins, pronounced from the cross and the empty tomb is for all. 

What we choose to do with that forgiveness is tricky business.

Think about the older bother from the parable of the prodigal. His Father, rather recklessly, forgives the younger son from his squandering ways, throws him a party and then insists that the older son comes into the cut up the rug. But we never find out whether or not the older brother joins the party.

Does he enter the room, grab a drink, and head for the dance floor?

Or does he stay in the outer darkness while weeping and gnashing his teeth?

In the end, God is throwing a party, the Supper of the Lamb, and we’re all invited, no matter what.

The question isn’t what constitutes a life worthy of the Kingdom, but instead, what are we going to do with out invitation?

Notice: nobody goes to hell because they made too many bad choices in this life anymore than someone goes to heaven because they made enough right choices. Everyone meets Jesus in the mystery of his death and resurrection, they are swept up in the great net whether we think they deserve it or not. 

Counter to many of our church ramblings throughout the centuries, and even today, we are not judged by the Lord in the light of our previous proclivities. If we were, none of us would go anywhere but hell.

Instead we are judged by what Jesus does for us on the cross. He announces a forever and all encompassing forgiveness that transfigures us into his kingdom in ways that are hidden and right here among us.

Let me put it this way: Everybody, even the worst of the worst, is someone for whom Christ died. Whenever the church goes around kicking people out for missed and poor choices, we fail to live into the netted-ness of Christ’s salvific work.

Sinners are the church’s business for God’s sake, literally.

We worship a Lord who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Until the end of the age, the only thing we can do is rest is the Good News that Jesus delights in catching us and everybody else. 

But back to the judgment reserved for the Lord.

So it will be at the end of the age, Jesus says, my angels will come and separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous.

How did the righteous ones get to be righteous? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus makes us righteous and we can’t do it on our own.

To whom is the gift of Jesus’ righteousness offered? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus came for the whole world, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.

But then how can some of them be judged as evil?

And that, dear friends, is the question of all questions.

Is it because not one of us is righteous, no not one (to steal an expression from Paul)?

Is it because, even though Jesus told us not to judge, it’s still our favorite thing to do?

Is it because we’re all dead in our sins and in desperate need of a Savior who can save us from ourselves?

The angels of the Lord will separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous. This is God’s good work, for there will be no evil in the end of the age – there will be no death, no mourning, and no crying, for God will make all things new.

Even us.

Do you see? Even at the end, God in Christ is hellbent on getting every single one of us into his Kingdom, even if it means separating the evil out of us so that we can feast at the Supper of the Lamb forever and ever.

There is to be joy in heaven! Not just over one found by the Lord but over the ninety nine as well.

There is to be joy over a whole New Jerusalem populated entire by forgiven sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their forgiveness. Not their good works of perfect report cards. Only by the forgiving and reconciling work of God. So be it. Amen. 

Baptism Isn’t A Choice

Matthew 5.14-16

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Dear Lucia,

You’re not going to remember today. 

In the church we call what we do to you today a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is a way in which God communicates something to us about us. And, you’re too young to have any idea what any of this means.

So I’m writing you a letter.

Hopefully one day your parents will sit you down and explain what happened to you, perhaps they will even apologize for the unenviable course this set you on (at least according to the world), and if you’re really lucky they’ll let you in on the secret of all secrets: It’s not just you who can’t understand what happened, none of us really do.

Baptism, at its best, is a people called church fumbling around in the darkness hoping God can make something of our nothing.

And, to make matters even stranger, getting baptized is a whole lot like getting married: A bunch of people gather together to hear promises exchanged knowing full and well that, as humans, breaking promises is precisely our cup of tea.

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we never quite live up to the expectations we place on ourselves.

And yet God remains steadfast to us precisely when we don’t return the favor.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today we baptize you into the Good News of Jesus Christ which, upon first glance, might actually seem like bad news. You know, the whole turn the other cheek and love your neighbors as yourself stuff. I promise you will discover moments when turning the cheek seems like the worst possible decision and I guarantee you’re going to find a neighbor with whom love appears impossible. And, contrary to how you will probably see baptisms in your own future, whether in the church in some movie, it’s not a picture perfect rainbows in the sky moment of bliss.

You are baptized into the death of Jesus so that you, to use the language of Paul, might become the gospel.

It’s actually quite strange.

Lucia, decades ago, when your great-grandparents and even grandparents were baptized into the faith, it was done so under the cloud of what we call Christendom – a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify the difference it meant to be Christian. Those differences were often defined by what the church said you could or couldn’t do. But those differences were relatively indistinguishable from what the country or community thought would be best anyway.

It was a time when it was assumed that just about everyone went to church on Sunday morning, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christian, and that so long as you said your prayers and put the right amount of money in the offering plate and made sure you did more good things than bad things everything would work out in the end.

That time is long gone and its not coming back.

And that, my dear niece, is truly Good News. What makes it Good News is the fact that you are being baptized into a radically different time for God’s church, a time of rediscovery for how unusual it is for us to be the church in the world. 

It is not an overstatement to say that what happens to you in baptism makes you different from other people. What I hope you come to know and see and believe is that the difference has little to do with you and everything to do with Jesus who is the difference who makes all the difference. 

In time you will come to discover that we who call ourselves Christians are a weird bunch – After all, we worship a God who became one of us, a Lord both fully human and divine, who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, died on the cross and was resurrected three days later. 

Even your baptism, this solitary moment in the life of faith, is a pretty bizarre endeavor. Should someone have walked by when I held you in my arms dumping water on your head they might’ve thought, “Is he trying to drown her?” And the truth is, yes, in a sense. Baptism is about drowning you in the Holy Spirit that you might arise different, because of Jesus.

Lucia, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus says you are the light of the world. If that’s true it is only and forever because Jesus is the light of the world first. He shines in the darkness, he is the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, he is the divine Word dwelling among us.

The best we can hope to do is reflect that light.

For, the more we think we’re the light of the world, the more we screw everything up. That I used “we” in that sentence is indicative of your baptism incorporating you into the church, a church that will forever be fallibly messing up the words from the Word. 

And we’ve certainly messed this one up from Matthew’s gospel.

For years, centuries even, this little bit of the story has been used to defend the example that Christians are supposed to make for the world to follow. Which is to say, you shine as a light for others to see the errors of their ways. 

Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so too will your faith shine gloriously in order to transform the world.

But that’s a little backwards. For one thing, as I already noted, Jesus is the light of the world, not us. And secondly, the proclamation of the Lord here actually calls into question the very habits and practices that have so hindered the faith.

Let me put it this way: You are like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view. The desire to appear perfect as an example for others is all good and fine, but you’re going to fail. We all do. That’s the reason we need Jesus. 

Therefore, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that you, or any other Christian for that matter, is the perfect example to follow, perhaps we should consider how visible we are to the world and to God. That is, God already sees and knows you better than you will ever know yourself. And knowing that you won’t live up to the promises made in your baptism and in the proclamation of the gospel, God already nailed to the cross every one of your sins before you even had a chance to make them.

Or, to put it another way, God has imprisoned all to disobedience in order that God might be merciful to all.

Lucia, when you read this one day and you wonder why I rambled on and on about all of this, don’t blame me – your parents picked this text for your baptism. I think it’s rather notable that, right before this passage, Jesus offers what we in the church call the Beatitudes. 

And, I must confess Lucia, I’m not sure why the baptized are not included in the list. Surely it would’ve been better for the Lord to say, “Blessed are the baptized for they will be surprised by what God has in store for them.”

Perhaps Jesus did not include what is done to you and for you today because the baptized either make the choice for themselves or, as in your case, the choice is made for them. Whereas the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted name the different states of life that happen to those who are baptized.

Today, your baptism, is not a choice that you, or frankly even your parents, made. That Jesus has to the gall to call you a city on a hill is indicative of it. The only decision possible for you was made on another hill 2,000 years ago on top of which stood a cross.

The only thing you have to do Lucia, is be what you are. How you live and move in the body of Christ called the church will be a visible act that will forever separate you from the rest of the world. 

Today you are made different. Not because of me, or your parents, or Godparents, or even the church. You are different because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. 

So welcome precious lamb to the strange new world of the baptized in which in spite of your worst, and even best intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Remember Who(se) You Are!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 29.15-28, Psalm 105.1-11, 45b, Romans 8.26-39, Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, keeping the Cross in Christmas, weddings beds, the canon, family trees, the importance of liturgy, the Romans Argument, buying the whole field, and baking bread. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Remember Who(se) You Are!

Buying The Farm

Matthew 13.44-46

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand

Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand

Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band

Check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale

Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town

Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back in show business

I’m gonna open a nightclub and call it “The Tree of Forgiveness”

And forgive everybody ever done me any harm

Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics

Buy ‘em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ‘em with my charm

Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm

What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?

Those are some of the lyrics from John Prime’s last recorded song before his recent death. And, I haven’t been able to get them out of my head. For one, the chorus is pretty catchy and I feel just the right amount of naughty for singing about drinking Moscow Mules and smoking cigarettes. But mostly because of the bit about watches in heaven.

I mean, what good is knowing what time it is when you’ve already bought the farm?

Buying the farm, incidentally, is an expression that came into existence around the time of World War II during which the insurance payout on a soldier’s death often afforded the opportunity for a surviving widow to pay out the mortgage on the homestead – ie. Buying the farm.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and then subsequently hid again. Jesus, in all of his parabolically paradoxical wonder, does some of his best work in hiddenness, in the not-yet-to-be-understood. 

It’s why the parables leaves us scratching our heads instead of really understanding the subject at hand.

Even the earliest disciples struggled with the stories. After Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection for the third time, not the second nor the first, scripture tells us that the disciples did not understand any of these things, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about.

The mystery of the kingdom, even when its most literal details are all spelled out remains inaccessible to their understanding.

Which means we’re in good company with the disciples.

God is God and we are not.

Or, as the psalmist puts it, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

But Jesus is hellbent on bringing us closer to the hidden mystery, even if it means we’re none the wiser on the other side.

Ultimately, Jesus says, the mystery of the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field; it is something worth selling anything we must in order to enjoy having it at all.

Most of the time when we read these two brief parables in tandem with one another, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, we think of them as proxies for our individual responses to Jesus’ kingdom. That is, each of us have the ability and the responsibility to go out seeking the kingdom and must be willing to pay whatever price for it. 

But, it’s more than that.

Because the two who are so willing to go and sell everything for the mystery is just as much about the whole church as it is about the individuals within in.

It’s about the church’s relationship to the world in which it finds itself, and how in the world they relate to one another.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic that is keeping us from gathering in-person with one another, the lines have become more blurred than ever about where the world ends and where the church begins.

And this is Good News.

What makes the advent of our current time such Good News for the church is the reminder that the church is not a club of insiders who happen to have a monopoly on the mystery that is the kingdom made incarnate in Jesus Christ. The church is not about our respective identities, or good behavior, or particular income brackets.

The church is a sign to the world of the mystery by which the light of the world has already shined upon all of creation.

Let me put it another way: For far too long the church has operated as if it’s this specific enclave that has access to salvation that the world does not, that people outside the church have to come inside and be just like us in order to have access to the one we call the Lord.

And there’s some truth to it – “there is no salvation outside the church” is a prevailing theological understanding across the church. But that language implies that everything is already perfect inside these walls and everything is damned outside. It leads churches to believing we are the paragons of virtue, the arbiters of everything that is good and right and true. And therefore we believe that evangelism, whatever it is, is all about making outsiders look like insiders – its all about getting people out there, in here, so that they can look, act, and speak like us.

What that ignores is the fact that the church isn’t full of perfect people – its full of sinners!

But that’s not how we act.

Instead we put up signs about how welcoming we are, and we’re only really welcoming so long as people start assimilating the moment they join the club we happen to call church.

Or we take the latest buzzwords and create slogans for our websites about tolerance, but we don’t tolerate anything outside what we consider worthy.

Or we invite people to church implicitly assuming that it’s our job to fix our friends/neighbors/co-workers so they can have perfect lives just like us!

All of that is false advertising.

It’s like putting a cake in the window of a running store – it only confuses people about what our business really does.

Similarly, whenever we market the church as a bunch of perfect people only getting more perfect, we deceive people as to what we are all about.

Notice – the discoverer of the treasure in the field goes and buys the whole thing. He doesn’t bury the treasure off in the best corner of the lot only to purchase that small portion. He buys the whole thing!

The church doesn’t exist as an a priori negation of the world, nor does it stand off as an exclusive country club for only the best of the best – the church is filled with the world whether we like it or not.

And the sooner we start liking it the better off we’ll be, because without it none of us would cut it.

The church is not perfection here on earth because its filled with a random sampling of all the broken people the world has to offer, the very people for whom Christ died, people wading through the waters of baptism to live in the light of the resurrection recognizing that we deserve not a single beam of it.

Rather than only procuring the best part of the field, the man buys the whole thing complete with sink holes, poison ivy, weeds, and thorny bushes. 

The same then holds true for the church – if we can’t bring ourselves to buy, that is: bring in, every different condition of our condition, the smart and the stupid, the good and the bad, the holy and the unholy, then we can’t even pretend we’re the church at all.

But why all this insistence of the all-ness of the mystery of the kingdom? Why isn’t it just for the choice and select few who maintain moral purity at all times?

Well, in addition to the totality of the field purchased by the parabolic figure, and the willingness of the merchant to sell all he had to buy the pearl, the power of the mystery is hidden in the most universal of all things: death. 

Now, bear with me for a moment: I know we don’t want to have to think about death any more than we already do. Though, I will note that just about every single product in the world is designed and advertised to make us think we can live forever.

But Jesus does his work, his best work, in the mystery of his own death, its in the darkness of a seed buried in the ground or treasure in a field or a man in the tomb, that the world is forever turned upside down. 

And, for what its worth, though Matthew tells us that man bought a field, there’s no reason to think the field wasn’t a farm. And, in the end, we all buy the farm.

Some of us get stupidly rich, some of us get horribly sick, some of us lose people we love, some of us write book, some of us teach others how to read or write books, some of us lose ourselves, and some of us throw it all away because of one foolish mistake, but every last one of us dies in the end.

Every single person, whether Christian or not, whether good or bad, will someday come into possession of the field of death in which Jesus has hidden the treasure of his salvific work.

As has been said from this pulpit on a number of occasions, the kingdom of Heaven will only and forever be populated by forgiven sinners. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who want no part of forgiveness.

The entire world will buy the farm.

And the best news, the Good News, is that we are saved by meeting the Lord in his death. 

Some of us participate in Jesus’ death here and now in the deadening of ourselves in the waters of baptism, whereas others experience it only at the end of their days, but Jesus comes to raise the dead. That’s his mysterious work. And there’s nothing on this earth that can stop him from doing it.

But, that’s not how we often talk, as the church, as Jesus’ body, in the world right now. Instead, we take this profoundly powerful and mysterious Kingdom and make it out as if there are only two types of people in the world – the completely right and the dead wrong.

And, again, the purchaser doesn’t buy only the best looking parts of the field. He procures the whole thing!

Which leads us to the parable of the pearl of great price.

The merchant is looking for something and he knows not quite what he is looking for until he finds it.

Or, perhaps, it finds him.

All of us, in different ways, are merchants of our own desires – shopping day and night for that which we don’t quite know or even understand. 

We adopt the latest culturally relevant habit because we believe it will make us whole.

We go and buy the latest Apple product because we convince ourselves it will finally bring order to the chaos of our lives.

We look for the greener grass over the next hill because surely life must be better than whatever this is.

And then, if the miracle of miracles occurs and people stumble into the church (or online during a streamed service) looking for something, what does the church offer in turn?

Hey, um, here’s the mystery of Jesus Christ all wrapped up nice and neat for you, the in-dwelling or his kingdom, but… if you want any part of it, you’re gonna need to shape up. So, uh, write this down, you need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.

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

I mean, who the hell would sell everything to buy all of that?

That whole list is undoubtedly filled with good things, things that we should probably all work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations. He says, “Come to me all of you with heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

The work of Christ, the hidden mystery of the kingdom, frees us from the sins that shackle us to a world in which we will never really feel home in.

Our home, instead, is in the kingdom. It is the kingdom – a kingdom built on love, freely offered and given to each and every single person past, present, and future, and the only thing anyone ever has to do to have it is buy the farm.

Because purchasing gladly at whatever cost is the heart of these two brief parables.

It is an utterly precious and priceless mystery – something to be enjoyed.

At the very least, there should be smiles in the church, not grimaces. We should be hearing Good News, not bad news. We should relish in our freedom, not in our burdens.

For, Jesus as the mysterious kingdom is already buried and hidden in the world. The church just as the good fortune of sharing that Good News with anyone and everyone whenever we can. Church, at its best, is nothing less that joyful discovering the truth that’s always been there, the truth that meets us where we are, that Jesus has already done for us far more than we could ever do for ourselves.

In the end we don’t have to sell everything we have for the field or for the pearl because, as the old hymn goes, Jesus paid it all.

Therefore, the grace of Jesus Christ is actually free. It’s not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

And that’s exactly what makes the Good News so good. Amen. 

In The Weeds

Matthew 13.34-43

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parables of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Contrary to how we often talk about, or even display, Jesus – He was pretty feisty. 

Sure, he sat with the crowds and multiplied the loaves and fishes – He calmed the storm while the disciples cowered in fear – He cured the sick, elevated the marginalized, and sought out the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But that doesn’t negate how contentious he was.

The Gospels paint a picture of the Messiah man such that we can see how he was eventually done in by the hostility that surrounded him.

It’s all good and well that you fed the crowds Jesus, but why didn’t you rain down manna from heaven for the rest of us?

Thanks for calming the storm out on the sea Jesus, but what about all the other hurricanes and typhoons?

I’m all for making the last first Jesus, but if I’m in a position of power right now you’re not going to take it away from me, are you?

It’s amazing to take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible every once in a while to think about how enthusiastic the crowds were for Jesus. Free meals not withstanding. The parables, what we’ve been focusing on here for the last few weeks, they’re downright confounding, they’re anything but clear, and they don’t paint the prettiest picture of the Kingdom.

And, apparently, this wasn’t anything new, at least according to the Lord.

Matthew tells us here that Jesus spoke in parables, and without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables and I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

This is how the Lord works, in mysterious, confusing, and scratch-your-head kind of ways. With stories about a sower scattering seeds, a Father who throws a party for his wayward son, and a field with weeds and wheat.

All of the parables, whether they’re parables of grace or judgment, they all point to God’s strange proclamation that the kingdom is already here, existing under the banners of judgement and grace. It’s not something off in the distant future that we have to wait for or work for. Rather, it’s among us in this present moment, and has been with us, mysteriously, since the foundation of the world.

Of course, the mystery of the kingdom throughout history is the whole point. For, since those days back in the Garden with Adam and Eve, the kingdom has been hidden and only signs of it have broken through (the people Israel, Jesus, the Church, etc.). But it has only been hidden, not absent. 

It is not, “yet to come.”

It is already here in strange and mysterious ways. 

Which leads us, bewilderingly enough, back to the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.

A brief refresher: A man plants good seeds in his field. But one night, while everyone’s dreaming of sugarplums, an enemy comes and plants weeds among the wheat. When the plants start to grow the servants of the man notice the weeds and ask if they should remove them. But the man says, “Nope, if you take out the weeds you’ll only ruin the wheat. Just wait for the harvest and we’ll get it all sorted out.”

That didn’t sit well enough with the disciples, and perhaps even with some of us today, so only after leaving the crowds and retiring to the house do the disciples pick up the previous, and unending, line of inquiry. “Lord,” they say, “You’ve got some explaining to do. Tell us what the parable of the Weeds really means…

“Fine,” Jesus seems to say. “The story I told wasn’t good enough for you eh? Well how about I explain every little part so it loses its excitement and you all can rest easy. But I should warn you, the more you know, the more you know. And you might not like what you come to know.

“Okay,” Jesus begins, “Check this out: I’m the guy sowing all the good seeds. The field is the whole cosmos, and the good seeds are the people of the kingdom. But the weeds, they are from the evil one, and the evil one is, well, evil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. I will send out the angels, and they will collect out of the kingdom all the stumbling blocks and all the indwellers with sin, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire! Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom. Did you get all of that? Are you happy with the explanation O disciples of mine?”

Are we happy with it?

Maybe we are. We’re pretty decent people after all. Heck, we’re watching a worship service online for God’s sake. We’re not terribly worried about being considered among the weeds. And, frankly, we know so disreputable types who might deserve the furnace.

Or maybe, this doesn’t sit too well with us. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we’re not as good as other people think we are and that, if we were to identify ourselves in the parable, we have more in common with the weeds than the wheat. Does that mean Jesus is going to send the angels to toss us into the fiery abyss?

It’s notable that, having listened to the Lord wax lyrical for an afternoon about sowers, wheat fields, mustard seeds, and yeast, the disciples gather in the house with Jesus and they demand to have the “parable of the weeds” explained to them.

Of all they heard, that’s what they wanted unpacked. And even the way they frame the inquiry, they have managed to turn the parable into something else. No mention of the divine farmer who delights in letting things grow together, no questions about where the farmer sows the wheat, they don’t even ask about the servants and their response to the growing field.

All they heard was a story about weeds.

Jesus delighted in giving those disciples a tale about the confounding relationship between good and evil from the vantage point of the Lord, but all they received was a pigeon-holed story about evil, and only evil. 

Perhaps we should give the disciples some credit. Rather than slinking down in their seats pretending to know exactly what was going on, they had the gall to raise their hands with an, “Excuse me Jesus, I don’t get it.

I like to imagine that when questioned about his parabolic utterances, Jesus responded first to the disciples by saying, “Yep, you really don’t get it.

But that’s not in scripture.

What is in scripture, on the other hand, is Jesus’ apparent willingness to unpack all that he had laid before them, one detail after another. 

Even today, we struggle like those disciples. We don’t understand the church’s relationship to the world, we don’t understand the complex dance between good and evil, we don’t understand what it means to be the wheat anymore than what it means to be the weeds. And if, and that’s a big if, we ever do start to see behind the curtain, if things start to fall into place, it’s a journey toward understanding and never an end in itself.

But it is a tremendous gift to be part of that journey. For, the parables of the kingdom make it rather clear that heaven is not “up there somewhere” but rather it is a kingdom that creates time and takes up space here and now. Jesus speaks through these strange and wild and wonderful stories so that we, those who receive them, might be for the world the reality of the kingdom. 

Sometimes we forget that in Jesus we get to see and hear what countless people had longed to see and hear.

The Lord made flesh, dwelling among us, telling stories about what reality really looks like.

And yet, the reality of Jesus’ explanation still hangs before us, a dreaded fiery catastrophe for those whom the harvesters gather together.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire,” Jesus says, “so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks and doers of iniquity.”

And that is what God will do. The New Jerusalem, the Supper of the Lamb, would be pretty weak if the Lord allowed such stumbling blocks to remain. Evil will be dealt with. It will be vanquished forever and ever. 

The disciples, like us, can’t help but assume that’s their job right here and right now. “Forget letting the angels divide up the weeds in the wheat Jesus! We can start right now! Give us a list of all the unforgivable sins and we’ll sort everyone out for you!”

And, as I’ve said before, we’ve done that kind of work since since the beginning of time an we’re still doing it today. We are quick to find a sin, whatever sin we want, and hold it over one another as the sign of someone’s outside-ness to our inside-ness. We fight to have the Ten Commandments hung in court houses, we keep locking people up for every crime under the sun, we keep putting people on death row, and what have we got to show for it?

When are we finally going to make the world a better place?

Jesus says, in his explanation of the parable, this work doesn’t belong to us. It’s up to him. And for that we should be remarkably thankful. Because not a one of us would cut it as a wheat in the kingdom of heaven. “No one is righteous, no not one,” to steal an expression of Paul’s. There is only one who has lived a life without sin, and he became sin in order that we might be freed from it. He went ahead and nailed every last one of our sins to the cross, past, present, and future. He forgave us from the cross for the worst sin of them all, for trying to kill God.

We, whether we like to admit it or not, are in the weeds – we deserve the furnace. 

I know that sounds a little too fire and brimstone for those of us who are Methodists. After all, we believe we have open hearts, minds, and doors even if everything about our lives scream the contrary.

But we can’t ignore Jesus’ explanation. I mean, we asked for it. 

And the angels will throw them into the furnace of fire. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The furnace of fire. That quite an image that Jesus chose. Interestingly, furnace is not a word that occurs in scripture all that much. In fact, it’s rather rare. Jesus uses it here, and he will use it again seven verses from now, and it also shows up, unsurprisingly, in the Book of Revelation.

But there’s one other, very notable, use of the word furnace in the Bible. It happens in Daniel chapter 3. 

Let take a very abbreviated trip into the Old Testament for a moment – The people Israel are living in exile in Babylon having been taken from the Promised Land. King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians catches word that three men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are refusing to worship the gods of Babylon and the king orders them to be thrown into the furnace of fire. Where, miracles of miracles, nothing happens to them. 

Moreover, when Nebuchadnezzar looks inside he see another mysterious figure with the three men. The King orders them to be removed from the fiery furnace and he blesses the God of the men he had previous condemned to death.

They are delivered from the fiery furnace and they stand as the righteous in a land of iniquity. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture them glowing from their fiery ordeal standing as a testament to the power of the Lord for salvation.

Jesus says that the weeds will be tossed into the furnace of fire and then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Lord. 

In the end, the Kingdom will be populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. That is, all of us. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who don’t want any part of forgiveness. The fire of refining that comes at the end of the age will burn away all the stumbling blocks to the kingdom, it will burn away all iniquity, and the only thing left will be forgiven sinners. Nothing more, less, or else. 

Amen. 

God Works With Manure

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 25.19-34, Psalm 119.105-112, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including self-care, ordinary people, church pro-tips, low hanging fruit, family problems, lamps in parenting, other gods, the Gospel in Romans, peaceful living, sowing stories, and fertilizing with the Word. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Works With Manure

Yokes Over Easy

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 24.34-38, 42-29, 58-67, Psalm 45.10-17, Romans 7.15-25a, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the paradox of doing nothing, an arranged marriage, the scandal of particularity, allegory, Pauline honesty, the goodness of our badness, having fun with Jesus, and the strange burden of Christianity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Yokes Over Easy