This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Folly of Pride
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.
During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”
The room was silent.
Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”
The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.
Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.
It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.
After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.
But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.
Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”
Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”
The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith.
For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.
We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.
We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.
We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.
We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.
God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting.
Nine members of the church were killed.
The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.
He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”
So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.
A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”
So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.
There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.
And we wept.
And then we prayed some more.
How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today.
Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.
So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.
We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices.
And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church.
What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.
This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.
What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.
Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?
Without all doubt we may.
And perhaps we must. Amen.
1 Timothy 2.8-14
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.
We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.
It was awful.
It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.
And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”
It was perfect.
I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon.
It was perfect.
But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”
I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.
Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.
The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.
But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible.
Well, sort of.
There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.
Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
Men should pray, Paul says.
Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.
Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.
Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.
Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.
And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…
However, scripture says other things as well.
Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.
And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible.
And the Gospels are no different!
Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.
Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!
Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.
And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.
And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.
And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.
It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.
Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.
God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.
It’s really as simple as that.
And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.
Which leads us to Galatians.
Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.
Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us.
Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.
The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each.
In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way.
The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it.
Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.
But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [C] (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interesting introductions, Tom Waits, grace, The Muppets Christmas Carol, singing with singers, advent questions, problematic language, bad timing, the wells of salvation, the longest night of the year, Christmas trees, and the order of operations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Come On Up To The House
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 1.1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9.11-14, Mark 12.28-34). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cheesy novels, the tenacity of human relationships, relevance, wedding texts, biblical agency, praise, faithful children, bloody hymns, at-one-ment, the words of life, and the end of questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Goes Buck Wild
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 17.32-49, Psalm 9.9-20, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-41). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including articles of clothing, bad introductions, meta-narratives, Sunday School scriptures, Christological readings, true trust, Pauline suffering, textual juxtapositions, stilled storms, and open questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing
We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.
We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions
Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together.
Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.
- Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
- 1 Corinthians 3.9
- “For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.”
- Ask everyone to share their names.
- Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.”
- Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
- What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
- What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
- What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
- If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
- If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
- When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
- When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
- If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
- If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
- Who is your hero and why?
- What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
- If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
- If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
- If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
- What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
- Wrapping Up
- Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
- Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.”
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.
But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.
A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.
The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.
We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.
But today it will be different.
This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.
To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.
What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.
Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.
And that’s okay.
After all, who can know the mind of God?
Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.
Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse.
One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.
And what do they share with one another?
Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.
The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.
A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.
A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.
I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.
And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster.
It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.
And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?
These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.
There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.
But, of course, we must speak.
We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening.
It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say.
Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.
There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.
There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.
There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.
Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.
These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.
To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.
And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.
For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.
And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.
Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.
Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most.
There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor.
But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments.
It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.
And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.
This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph.
God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.
Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.
Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.
I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.
Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Those words accomplish nothing.
Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.
If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.
God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.
Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.
Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable.
But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen.
But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
“There is no such thing as a stupid question.”
I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.
But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:
“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”
“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?
“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”
However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.
We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.
And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing!
There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces.
Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be.
So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime and rejected their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writings and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his ability to comprehend, such that (for instance) I have an entire shelf in my office dedicated to his books.
But long before I heard about Barth, he toured the US in the early sixties, lecturing to both the young and old about the importance of God being God.
And for as much as I love Barth, he can be remarkably dense. During his tour he was approached by a young theologian who declared, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.” To which Barth responded, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I written.”
That particular tour had him stopping at the leading theological institutions like Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. And after one such lecture, not doubt filled with deep theological affirmations beyond reasonable comprehension, a young woman decided to bravely ask a question.
Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the US. Churches were pushing hard for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And every wanted to know when everybody got saved.
So, this young woman, with her hand shaking in the air, patiently waited to ask her question. Barth lectured on and on about who knows what and then he finally called on her.
She said, “Well, Professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”
After no doubt responding to questions about the immutability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the trinity, and the self-unveiling of God who cannot be discovered by humanity, Barth was finally asked a simple question with a simple answer.
And this is what he said, “Hmm, when was I saved? Of yes, that’s easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”
What must we do to be saved?
In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as an item on a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to get into heaven. These moments of willed salvation often take place in the midst of an altar call, that time when the pastor calls for people like you to come to the throne to give your lives to Jesus. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and saved them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and cup of communion, nourishing someone’s faith to the point of everlasting reward.
In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a total rebirth, such that individuals will celebrate two birthdays each year. Their actual birth day, and their new-birth day. Some, believe it or not, will even bring out a birthday cake and presents, for BOTH of the days.
But is that what it takes to be saved? Is that part of God’s requirements to pass through the pearly gates?
This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something is not within our own power, it is exclusively God’s. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. But everyone can be saved – by virtue of what God can do.
Great are the works of God, and we delight in what God has done, is doing, and will do. God’s work is full of majesty and God’s righteousness endures forever. The psalmist covers all the bases, buttering God up with all of God’s attributes. We know of God from all of God’s wonderful deeds. The Lord is gracious and merciful. He offers and provides food to those who fear, and God is always mindful of the covenant.
But among these buttery and complimentary verses, there is one that shines bright and is somehow often overlooked: God sent redemption to God’s people.
Perhaps it’s a product of coming of age in a culture where we always hear about the need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that we assume salvation is up to us. We read these books about how to be the better me, thinking that if I only add this discipline, or get on this diet, that it will fix everything. We surround ourselves with people who often think like us, to embolden our own beliefs, rather than spending time with people who will challenge what we think we know.
But God sent redemption to us!
Can you think of a more profoundly beautiful sentence? God sent redemption to us. Not a five steps process to becoming the true you, not an outline of a daily schedule to practice piety, not a pill or product that can fix our problems. God sent redemption. To us.
We have been redeemed. But from what? In the beginning of scripture there is a story about a man and a woman who had a choice. They could have stayed within God’s loving and beautiful embrace, or they could taste the fruit, the forbidden fruit. All was theirs, and then all was lost, because they chose to govern themselves rather than obey God. They believed in the boot-strap model more than the grace-filled reality of God. They wanted power, and they received punishment.
But, God sent redemption to us.
In the United Methodist World, we call redemption grace. And it begins with prevenient grace. It is something offered to us without price or cost. It is free. And we can choose to respond to the grace, but we cannot do anything to earn it.
And then there’s God’s justifying grace, the act of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead that reconciled the divisions that took place in the Garden of Eden. Again, it is something God did for us, without our having earned it.
And finally there’s God’s sanctifying grace. It is the power of God’s grace working in us toward a better and more perfect understanding of who we are and whose we are. Sanctification is a life-long process where we grow daily in our Christlikeness.
We experience God’s grace through a number of means, like communion and baptism, reading scripture, daily prayer, and even sometimes through a sermon. They are the tools and mechanisms by which we are reminded what God has done, so that we might respond.
Our lives are made up of holy sanctified moments, those strange and powerful moments where the earthly and the divine come close together.
We are all in the process of sanctification. And, as someone once noted, sanctification is nothing more than getting used to our justification.
When I was in seminary learning about all the stuff pastor’s are supposed to learn, we took a class on the New Testament. Every time we gathered we looked at a different book in the New Testament and we unpacked the theology. We talked about who Jesus was, and where Jesus went, and what Jesus said. And one day, in the middle of the lecture, my professor projected an image on the board of the crucified Jesus. It looked like a painting from the Renaissance and Jesus was the perfect specimen of humanity, almost glowing while dangling without pain. But then my professor went to the next slide, and it was another crucifixion scene. This time it was more abstract with strange colors and shapes but it was still clearly Jesus on the cross. And again and again, the slides came and went with different portrayals of Jesus’ death.
And the longer it went on the more uncomfortable I felt.
Instead of looking at the images from the perspective of a student studying lines and meaning, I began looking at them like a Christian. And with each passing image I saw the immense suffering of the one we call Lord, dying on the cross. I noticed the fragility of the One born in the manger, I saw the struggle of the Savior, I experienced the labor of the Lord.
And it was too much.
Before I knew it I was walking out of the room as if I couldn’t breathe, and I sat down in the hallway by the door. One of my friends promptly followed me outside and picked me up, looked me in the eyes, and said, “What in the world is going on with you?”
I said, “I don’t deserve it. Seeing Jesus on the cross, for me, I just don’t deserve it.”
And with complete sincerity he said, “You idiot, that’s the whole point. You don’t deserve it. Neither do I. That’s why we call it grace.”
God sent redemption, to us. We did not receive God’s redemption, God’s grace, because we finally mastered the faithful life, and because we finally put all our ducks in a row, and because we finally paid off our credit card debt, and because we finally lost those ten pounds. God sent redemption to us. Period.
No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, or any less. You have been saved, and are being saved. As you get used to your justification, God is sanctifying you. There is nothing we can do to be saved because God is the one saving us.
That’s why the psalmist can say, “Praise the Lord!” Because God’s works are indeed great, God is full of majesty and righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful. Holy and awesome is the name of God. He has sent redemption to us.
However, lest we become “couch potato Christians”, we are not sitting around passively waiting for God to do something. God’s grace is such that it propels us to respond in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are always moving on to a greater understanding of what it means to love God and neighbor.
God’s grace, prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying is a gift. We can receive the gift and pack it away in the closet and it will never do a thing. Or we can receive the gift and use it each and every day in the ways we commune with God, the ways we interact with our fellow brothers and sisters, and the ways we experience God’s creation.
Additionally, grace is not a get out of jail free card, nor is it a protective talisman that saves us from ever suffering. The life of God in Christ, the redemption sent to us, is the penultimate reminder that you cannot have resurrection without crucifixion. That those who wish to gain their lives must lose them. And that if we want to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, we have to take up our own crosses to follow him.
So we praise the Lord! We give thanks to Lord with our whole hearts, in the company of the congregation, because God sent redemption to us. Amen.