Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

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These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

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However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

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I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen. 

Ending With A Promise

Devotional:

Isaiah 12.2

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

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Today, thanks to Tommie Marshell’s excellent devotional for the Advent Begins In The Dark series, I was reminded of some words from the phenomenal preacher Fleming Rutledge:

“The sermon should end with a promise because God’s purposes cannot be defeated; that’s God’s promise. So that if we have received the gift of faith, we need to know that God is present in that gift of faith and even when we think we are losing our faith, God is still there.”

God is still there…

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I used to run the sound system at my home church. Every Sunday I could be found in the back of the sanctuary tinkering away with all the knobs and slides so that everyone could hear whatever it was the preacher was saying. And, on Christmas Eve, I would do the same.

On one particular Christmas Eve I drew the short straw and was asked to run the board for the 11pm service. The preacher that night was exhausted by that point, having already preached at 3, 5, 7, and 9pm services, and the sanctuary was not as filled as it had been earlier in the evening. But nevertheless a faithful remnant stood vigil and offered the hymns with gusto. To be honest, I don’t remember much from the service that night except that the sermon ended with a promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

After we blew out the final candle and turned off all the lights, I got in my car and drove home to my parents’ house. Longing for the warmth of my bed, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, I drove with anticipation. 

Until I saw the fleshing red and blue lights ahead of me.

My home was down the street from an old stone bridge that runs across the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, VA and as I pulled up to the bridge I went into Boy Scout mode without really thinking about what I was doing. And before I knew it I had parked the car and ran down to the road offering to help in any way that I could to the first police officer I encountered.

He looked up from the road and said, “Son, go home and forget that you saw any of this. Merry Christmas.”

And I wish that I could forget what I saw.

But I can’t.

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Because that night, shortly before I arrived in my car, a man from our community had been standing on the edge of the bridge for a long time waiting and waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming down the road, and when he felt that it was the right moment, he jumped.

The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from their own Christmas Eve service, a family ready for the warmth of their beds, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, a family that would be forever changed.

In the many years since that night I have tried my best to forget what I saw on the road. I’ve tried to fill that memory with the light and the glow of the sanctuary instead of the red and blue lights. 

But I can’t. 

And that’s okay; this world of ours is broken and flawed and people are hurting. It doesn’t do any of us any good to sugar-coat this season like the candy-canes we have displayed in our homes. But we mustn’t forget the promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

For me.

For the man who jumped.

For the family in the car.

And for you.

We Need To Talk

Mark 10.2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

She was almost 8 months pregnant. Her ankles were constantly swollen, the fatigue was nearly unbearable, but every kick she felt made it worth it. She and her husband had prayed and prayed and prayed for this baby, and in a month the baby would finally arrive.

Her parents lived states away, and she and her husband decided she should fly home for a quick weekend, one last chance to spend time with her parents before she herself became a parent.

The airports were challenging as she carried around a bunch of extra weight, but every eye that darted to her belly, and every strangers’ smile was enough to keep her moving forward.

Her parents enveloped their baby girl in their arms knowing that soon they would be grandparents and that their prayers had been answered as well. The time at home was destined to be a joyful reunion filled with the hope of the coming days, weeks, and months.

The day before she was set to fly home to her husband, she sat at the breakfast table with her parents. She held her mother’s hand on top of her belly, hoping for a quick kick that would surely bring forth a tear of unadulterated happiness, when the door bell rang.

In walked a young professional looking man, who walked straight over to hand her a large manilla envelope. But as his eyes moved to her belly, he froze in the middle of the kitchen. He muttered a barely audible, “I’m so so sorry,” deposited the parcel, and walked out of the house.

The parents and soon-to-be-parent slowly opened up the envelope.

Divorce papers.

She was almost 8 months pregnant.

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Marriage is weird. Out of all the people in the world, among all of the possible conversations and interactions, some of us are brought together in a way that we believe we should make a covenant to be together for the rest of our lives.

It’s pretty strange when you take a step back to think about it.

I had a professor who loved to say that we always marry the wrong person. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the individuals we marry, but that we don’t really know who we are marrying or what marriage really is until we do it.

Marriage is the weird and wild journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

And, for as many marriages as I’ve been blessed to preside over, I can’t help but wonder why people get married at all; particularly today. I’ve heard all of the reasons: “We love each other, “It’s the next logical step in our relationship,” “I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”

But is that what marriage really is? 

Love and logic ain’t enough.

A successful marriage, whatever that means, will never be contingent on the whims, or the romantic feelings, or the love, of those who are married. Love, as strong as it can be, is not enough to sustain couples in the midst of great tribulation. Love cannot make up for horrible lapses in judgment, terrifying domestic violence, or disturbing amounts of adultery.

Marriage is always about more than love. Marriage requires endurance, patience, hope, conversion, renewal, forgiveness, sacrifice, and reconciliation.

Marriage isn’t easy.

And that’s why more than half of all marriage end in divorce.

In the US the top three reasons for divorce have to do with money, children, and ironically enough, church itself.

All of these particular hangups stem from poor, or totally absent, communication. A couple disagrees about how to budget their money, or one of them gambles it all away without telling the other.

A couple disagrees about how to discipline a child or whether or not to have children at all.

A couple disagrees about the role the church should play in their relationship or their religious convictions can no longer harmonize with each other.

In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 per day, 16,800 per week, and 876,000 per year.

Divorce is one of the most remarkably prevalent occurrences in our culture and society to the degree that most of us have become numb to it, and we almost never talk about it in church. 

We don’t take it very seriously.

Many are quick to end their marriage whenever the first hiccups are experienced, but as Christians we are called to hear what Jesus had to say about divorce, which can be a bitter pill to swallow.

So, for just a moment, imagine if you were standing up here with me looking out at everyone else. If the church is at all average, half of the married people in the room either have already been divorced, or will be by the end of their days.

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That is a frightening reality considering Jesus’ words. 

Some Pharisees tried to test him regarding the law on divorce because Moses allowed men to write certificates of dismissal to divorce their wives. And during the time of Moses, and Jesus, receiving that certificate was just about the worst thing that could happen to a married woman because she would effectively lose all of her rights. She could easily find herself on the street begging for food or prostituting her body for income. 

Jesus was deeply deeply concerned with the marginalized people within his community, and in this particular case women who were handed a signature that destroyed their lives.

Of course, we can all admit that things have certainly changed since the days of Jesus – but maybe they haven’t changed enough.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that day is one that still casts a great shadow over families, churches, and communities: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Jesus talked about this kind of stuff A LOT, and yet we in the church often avoid it at all costs. Probably because half the people in the church have, in all probability, experienced divorce.

But let us at least consider something Jesus said that is of paramount importance: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

God is the one who does the joining; we are the ones who do the separating. 

Or maybe a better way to put it is this: Divorce is certainly not what God intends or hopes for, but there are times when there might not be another option. Times of horrific physical abuse, or traumatic adultery, can be nearly impossible to move through, but plenty of people get divorced for some of the most mundane reasons:

“Our interests have grown apart.” “We no longer communicate effectively.” “I’m not in love anymore.”

As long as we are human beings, divorce will be a reality. Which is to say, as long as we are sinners we will sin against each other. However, we worship a God of impossible possibilities who believes in us even when we do not. We follow a first-century Jew who believed in the sanctity of covenants even when we do not live according to them. We are empowered by a Spirit of truth, and renewal, and reconciliation.

Marriage is a strange and serious thing – it is perhaps one of the most strangely serious thing that any of us will ever do.

And we know the strangely serious dimension of marriage because it is one of the preferred metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people.

Marriage is not normative for Christian people, and is certainly not the expectation. If any us discover someone in whom we believe God can keep us covenanted with, well then good for us. If we find ourselves moving through life without ever coming to altar to make that particular covenant, then good for us too.

But marriage, whether we experience it or not, is something we are all called to know because God has covenanted to remain with us. 

God stands before us again and again knowing full and well how we have failed to respond to the promise. We regularly pursue our own desires, we sin against neighbors, friends, and strangers, and we forget what God was willing, and is will, to do for us.

Jesus was able to speak with such ferocious certainty and conviction about the virtues of marriage because Jesus is the one who holds fast to the covenant even when we do not. It was in holding on to the promise that Jesus found himself nailed to the hard wood of the cross while abandoned by the bride which is the community we call the church.

Marriage is a strange and serious thing. And so is divorce. Which is why we need to talk about it.

In every marriage there is the strange discovery of realizing we don’t really know the person we married. We move through tragedies and hardships, we experience mountaintops of joy and deep valleys of sorrow, and if we are still married in the end it is because we found the true nature of the God of covenant and hope. 

Marriage, though we sometimes forget, is a radical and countercultural endeavor. Jesus subverted the expectations of marriage with the Pharisees because he believed married couples should exists in plains of equity. No longer would the patriarchal norms in which women had no autonomy be present in something like marriage (though we clearly still have work to do).

Marriage has to be more than something that can be ended with a simple piece of paper. But as long as that option remains (as it should in some circumstances) the church is the place where that broken covenant can be redeemed.

After she opened the envelope, it felt like a tornado ran through the house. Every part of her hopes, and dreams, and expectations felt shattered and annihilated. 

The covenant was broken.

She moved back in with her parents for the remainder of the pregnancy, and when the time came to go to the hospital she was surrounded not by her husband, but by her parents and friends. 

Every bit of her life felt lifeless until she held her baby girl for the first time. And though it certainly hasn’t been easy, and she still feels the sting of pain and betrayal and hurt on a regular basis, every time she looks into the eyes of her daughter she discovers something beautiful that came out of the darkness.

Weddings take place in the church because the church is strange compared with the rest of the world. While others might ebb and flow like a kite in the wind, the church stands for something that resists our subjectivity. The church is a willing witness to the sanctity of marriage, particularly in light of Christ’s willingness to beckon us back to the throne over and over again.

The church is where married couples learn what is means to remain faithful to something that they never really could’ve imagined.

The church is where divorced individuals discover a community that will remain steadfast even if their partner didn’t.

The church is also where the sinful partner can one day find a new home and hope of redemption on the other side of repentance.

The church is where single people who never feel called to the covenant of marriage embody similar covenants with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The church is where the virtues of marriage and the destructive nature of divorce can be laid on the throne because being together is never really about us; it’s about God. Amen. 

Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah 31.31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.

It’s time to do a new thing.

Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.

Here’s an example: Communion

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.

One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.

It was a holy thing.

However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.

I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.

When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”

            And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.

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            We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.

We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.

God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.

Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.

They were going through the motions.

They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.

For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.

There was no “why?”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.

The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.

Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.

No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.

This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.

            So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.

WEIRD

If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.

The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.

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The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”

If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”

            Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”

Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?

Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?

The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”

            God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”

Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.

Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.

To My Youngest Sister On The Occasion Of Her Engagement

Jeremiah 31.31-33

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

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I answered the phone yesterday afternoon to the delightful news of your engagement. You shared the where, and the how, and the when. I listened with my imagination and tried to picture the scene as it all unfolded. I contemplated the beginning of your relationship and all the mountains and valleys that led to the proposal.

And as soon as you hung up to call the next person on the list, I gave thanks to God.

I gave thanks to God not because you’ve found your partner, or that you were asked in accordance with your romantic desires; I gave thanks to God because your engagement is a sign (and reminder) of God’s covenant with all of us.

When the day of your wedding arrives, I will stand with the two of you by the altar, and I will ask you to make promises (read: covenants) with each other about the future. A future that you cannot possibly imagine. And I will save more theological reflections for that particular moment, but until that holy time, I will share this – there is a difference between the promise that is now present on your finger, and the promise that marks our hearts.

For centuries the people of God abandoned the ways of God. Rather than rejoicing in all the good gifts they received, they (just like us) wanted more. They wanted more power, more wealth, more esteem at the expense of their faithfulness, holiness, and convictions. They worshiped other gods, they rejected the covenant, they assumed that they could make it through this life all on their own.

And for that reason God established a new covenant.

It was a new covenant not because the first was flawed, but because the partner of the covenant was flawed. The covenant became a list of dos and don’ts such that they worshiped the Law rather than the One who gave the Law. Moreover, they began to see one another not as fellow brothers and sisters set apart by God, but as objects to be manipulated for individual gain.

In the fullness of time God saw fit to establish a new covenant through water and Spirit, the covenant of baptism, through which we are incorporated in Christ’s church. It is a sign of a promise written on our hearts that God will be our God.

It is not a ring on a finger.

That is a different sort of promise. That promise (of which you sent a picture to me minutes after the proposal) is a promise made between two of God’s people in anticipation of God’s promise being made manifest.

That’s not to say that God’s wasn’t there on the mountaintop when you shouted “yes!” with gleeful joy. God certainly was; just as God has been with the two of you in every moment of your relationship. But there is a new covenant coming, one made between the two of you in the sight of God, and in the sight of the community that will promise to hold you accountable to the covenant you are making.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenantal moment on the mountain is a reminder of the power and necessity of the church. The church (for all of her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the kind of promises that you and your beloved have made, and will continue to make, with one another. The church itself is a covenant from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as bridegroom. We make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and exemplified in the empty tomb.

You two are now on a path that Christians experience every Sunday in worship, through every clasped connection of hands in prayer, in the breaking of bread, in the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the occasional sermon.

Your engagement is a reminder of God’s engagement (covenant) with us. And for that I give thanks to God.

 

Sincerely,

Your Big Brother

The End Of The Rainbow

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

 

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Things were looking good for the people of God, but just six chapters into the Good Book, humanity has become polluted beyond repair. The situation was so terrible that God sends a flood to start over. However, God calls upon Noah to build an Ark that will be the seed of new life, and he and his family, plus two of every animal are spared..

And then, after rocking gently on the waves for forty days and forty nights, the waters recede; the family and animals walk down the ramp, and up in the sky is a rainbow declaring God’s love toward all of creation.

This, of course, is the most beloved of all Sunday School stories for children. I have yet to encounter a church nursery or children’s Sunday school room in which the ark wasn’t painted on a wall, or a book describing the events couldn’t be found on a shelf, or plastic figurines of the animals and Noah weren’t tossed in a corner after years of repeated use and play.

At my last church I would take time every year to teach the children in our preschool about Noah and his Ark. We would put on little animal masks and line up two by two and march around the church property making animals sounds as loud as we possibly could while cars would slow down to watch a tall bearded man lead a group of children in flapping their wings, clomping their jaws, and shaking their tails.

And it would inevitably end in the playground where there was a large plastic boat that had enough space for everyone to climb aboard. We would pretend that the waves we shaking us back and forth, and then we’d look up in the sky for our make-believe rainbow.

            The end.

And we almost always tell the story that way; we jump straight to the rainbow. But in jumping ahead, we forget about the immense devastation the survivors would have witnessed. We forget that God sent the flood for a reason, and that death and carnage would have spread as far as the eye could see.

Have you seen what Houston looked like after the flood waters receded? Do you remember how long it took to sift through the entire city of New Orleans after Katrina? That’s what the flood must have been like, but worse.

            And we teach this story to our children.

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The rainbow was in the sky as a sign and reminder of the covenant God made with God’s people, but it was also done in the presence of death and destruction. “Never again,” says the Lord, “Will I destroy the earth.”

On Wednesday afternoon, while countless Christians were walking around with ashes in the sign of a cross smeared across their foreheads, a young man pulled the fire-alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and waited for people to pour out in the hallways. And then he began shooting.

17 dead, another dozen injured.

In October, a man looked out from his room in Las Vegas at the crowds of people dancing at a music festival. While the pumping music was filling the air, he added to it with the sound of gunshots.

58 dead, 851 injured.

On December 14th, 2012, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting.

20 dead, the majority of whom were 6 or 7 years old.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. Those numbers don’t include what happened in Las Vegas, or a number of other shooting related events. But in the last five years, 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings.

Called to life out of chaos and nothingness by the breath of God, we humans seem at every turn bent on returning to that chaos. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” And so God sent the flood.

Following the Flood, God placed the rainbow in the sky, and God promised to never drop such violence on us again, and for some reason, we’ve failed to hold up our end of the bargain.

God’s act over creation binds all of creation together, from the fish in the sea to the birds in the air, to the people in the pews next to you. And yet violence, anger, aggression, they rule the day. They captivate our attention, they fuel our inner thoughts, they drive our responses to frustration. We are a people near the end of the rainbow.

It’s like we’re so obsessed with the end of the story, we forget what got us here.

Since Wednesday afternoon I have been bombarded with messages from people both inside and outside of the church.

On one side there are people fighting for stricter gun control. They believe that sensible legislation could prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to make it harder to purchase a firearm.

It’s important to note, that of the last 18 mass shootings, the majority of the firearms were purchased legally and with a federal background check.

On the other side, there are people fighting for greater access to weapons and freedom to use them. They believe that arming teachers and administrators will prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to protect their freedom to defend themselves and others.

Violence, it seems, is inescapable. Regardless of the rainbows above our heads, this world of ours is captivated by one in which the power to end life reigns supreme.

But God has a knack for making a way out of no way.

We all know what chaos looks like, we don’t need the reminder from Genesis, we have the nightly news, and Facebook, and Twitter to show us what real chaos looks like. But it is in the midst of chaos, with the stories flooding in and the destruction around our ankles, that the rainbow arches across the sky demanding our attention.

And when we see that bow, when we hear about those teachers who sacrificed their lives to protect their students, when we witness the children standing in front of the school praying for their friends, we remember what God did for humanity and all of creation, we get a taste of the covenant, we discover redemption.

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Maybe that’s why we teach children the story of Noah and the Ark, and the rainbow in the sky, even if we’ve lost a connection to its deep and frightening truth – we want our children, in fact we want everyone, to know that God’s love and hope is present in the chaos, that even while the world is full of disturbing devastation, God has not forgotten us.

In the covenant made through the sign of the rainbow, God bound God’s own self to us in a new and different way. God became intimately connected with the creatures of his creation, preserving, sustaining, and encouraging them (us) toward redemption.

The rainbow, therefore, acts like a mirror, in which we see the truth of our reflection. We see who we really are, with our anger, and our propensity toward violence, and our fear. We see the truth, and we remember that God hung his bow in the sky.

So, perhaps the time has come to reclaim the strange, ugly, and beautiful truth of the rainbow. Maybe the time has come to put an end to the rainbow in nurseries and children’s bibles alone. Perhaps we need to seal our hearts with the rainbow that declares a new day has broken, that there is a better way, that there is room for all of the colors that make the covenant what it is.

That kind of rediscovery could completely reshape and shake up what we know of who we are. It won’t make us perfect, it won’t rid the world of evil, but it will stand as a reminder, just as it once did, that God has not abandoned us to our own devices, that God has made a new day and a new way.

This story from near the beginning, is the beginning of the covenants that lead to the kingdom. It is a promise established in Noah, and later with Abraham, David, and through our baptisms into Jesus’ death and resurrection.

            The covenant, at its core, is a witness to the fact that God is stuck with us, and that we are stuck with God.

In life, there are moments when we can feel the rage build within us. It usually happens in response to something we experience in another person, whether right in front of us, on television, or on the Internet.

And, to be clear, there are times when rage is appropriate. The Psalms are filled with these little vignettes into the anger of the people Israel amidst such terrible injustice. It is good and right for us to be angry when we see what happened in Florida this week, it is good and right for us to be angry about innocent children being murdered indiscriminately, it is good and right for us to voice our opinions about what can and needs to change.

            The challenge is in remembering that God is with us in the midst of our anger. That God saw the deplorable state of the world not only during the days of Noah, but in the days right before Jesus’ birth, and God sent us a new sign, in his Son, who came to show that love always trumps violence, that we are bound to one another even when we can’t stand each other, and that there is a better way.

The rainbow above Noah’s head, the experience of Jesus in our lives, they are a reminder that the world was broken, is still broken, and that God is in the business of reconciliation. It forces us to confront the brokenness of our own lives, and in the lives of others. It even makes us uncomfortable – for if God was willing to refrain from violence upon the world, if God was willing to hang up the bow, why haven’t we done the same? Amen.