Too Good To Be True

Acts 2.14a, 36-41

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Think and Let Think · Too Good To Be True

He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.

He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.

Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.

At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living. 

He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”

The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”

So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”

“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”

So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child. 

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.

After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

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That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.

And, I love that story.

I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.

Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave him the Good News.

The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”

Repent and be baptized.

Turn and join us. 

Your sins are forgiven.

Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.

It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.

Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.

Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.

But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?

Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.

That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.

Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!

But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

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And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely. 

Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.

Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change. 

We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it. 

We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention. 

We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.

In short, we no longer call sin, sin.

And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.

Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.

And yet, it’s true.

We’re all sinners.

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There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves. 

Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”

You notice anything missing in all of that?

Maybe God?

Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you. 

Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.

But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place. 

Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse. 

When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.

Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.

We’re forgiven. 

If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.

Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.

We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word. 

While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”

The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen. 

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Devotional: 

Joshua 5.9

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. 

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Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Or do the saying goes.

The Israelites have wandered and wandered and they finally make it to the Promised Land. An entire generation has passed and even Moses himself is buried in the ground before God’s people make it to the land of milk and honey. Joshua, ever mindful of faithful leadership, marks the place of their transition from the past into a new future, and the Lord said, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

Not when the horse and the rider where overwhelmed by the rushing waters of the sea.

Not when the plagues rained down upon the Egyptians.

Not when Moses struck the rock in the wilderness and brought forth water.

The stone of disgrace is rolled away only when they finally make it to where they were going.

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And even in this powerful moment of newness, they are reminded of what took place back in Egypt. This is a reoccurring theme in the biblical witness, not just what happened in Egypt, but reminding God’s people what God did for them. 

We are tied to our histories whether we like it or not.

And in this moment God says, you are bound to your history, but you are not defined by it; today I roll away the disgrace.

Ten years before the Civil War took place in the US the Methodist Church split over differing theologies about slavery. Many/Most of the Methodist churches in the north believed that it was ungodly to maintain the institution of slavery where many/most of the Methodist churches in the south believe that slavery was instituted by God. 

The Methodist Church did not come back together until the 1930s.

That is part of the history of Methodism, a history that many of us would rather ignore or forget. Particularly in the state of Virginia, there are a good number of churches that were around when the split took place and they proudly display which version of the church they chose to identify with. 

We are bound to that history, but we are not defined by it. God is still pushing us into new places with new ideas and new theologies. Some of our Moseses will be buried in the past and new Joshuas will have to stand to lead us into places unknown. 

But we cannot forget who we were, otherwise we are doomed to return.

Disturbing The Peace

Isaiah 58.1-9a

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

I count it a miracle whenever people show up for worship on Ash Wednesday.

This liturgical practice has changed quite a lot just in my lifetime. I came-of-age in a world where the only people walking around with ashes on their foreheads were those faithful Catholics who went to early early one Wednesday morning once a year. 

But now, more and more churches are rediscovering the profound power that comes from the strangest of places – a recognition of the condition of our condition.

We are sinners.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it, we are incompatible.

At the heart of Ash Wednesday is a declaration about our rebellion from God. It’s why we pull from the likes of the prophet Isaiah – announce to the people their sins!

And yet very few, if any, are willing to hear this accusations hurled at us from the Lord. Let alone from somebody dressed in black at the front of the sanctuary.

More often than not, our sinfulness get proclaimed to us about our failure to do something. Whether we hear it from a pastor, or the radio, or our own inner monologue, we imagine that we are not doing enough.

We confront the reality of poverty in our neighborhood and we feel like we could be doing more.

We discover the injustices committed against people both inside and outside the church and we think that we haven’t done our fair share.

We turn on the news and see another tragedy and we wonder if we could’ve done something to stop it.

And then we have a day like today where we are expected to confess, apologize, express remorse, and embody repentance for all that we have failed to do.

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But even if we are in a place to hear about our failures, we are quick to rationalize them. Most of us are perpetually rearranging reality to conform to our ideas about how the world should work – we lie to ourselves and others constantly and unthinkingly.

We do, every so often, have opportunities to see who we really are, be it an Ash Wednesday service, or the cutting accusation from a friend, or another probing question for a spouse, or child, or parent, and we don’t like the image we see in the mirror.

We deny the truth.

Denial has become an art form.

We deny death with every advertisement on TV and every pill we receive from the pharmacy.

We deny responsibility with every shrug of our shoulders when we see an elected official failing to do their job.

We deny the fundamental reality about who we are by filling our lives with stuff that we’re supposed to do.

Those empty gestures of holiness and postures of supposed solidarity often amount to little more than a Facebook status change or telling someone to listen to a particular podcast.

But Ash Wednesday compels us to dispense our denials and realize what the condition of our condition is.

Ash Wednesday, at its best and worst, disturbs the peace that we’ve worked so hard to believe is true.

We don’t need to parade out the overwhelming examples of sin from our personal lives, or even our collective lives. One need not look too far into the soul to see that there is often more darkness than light. One need not pretend the church is a perfect body when we spend 3.5 million dollars arguing about who else to exclude from ministry or marriage. 

There is a reason that Ash Wednesday is one of the least attended worship services in the entire year – in it we acknowledge that God has a pretty good case against us, and we throw ourselves upon God’s mercy knowing we do not deserve it.

That is not a fun feeling to have. 

Most of us respond to that great gulf between God’s goodness and our sinfulness by trying to do something to make God forgive us. We fall back on the Law hoping it can redeem us. We even lob charges against other people for their failures because it makes us feel better about our own.

The Law will demand everything from us, but give us nothing.

It is the Gospel that demands nothing from us, but gives us everything.

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That is the crux of this bizarre thing that we do as disciples of Jesus Christ. We gather, we listen, and we faintly begin to grasp that there is quite literally nothing we can do to get God to love us more. We look deeply in our sins, and the sins of the church, and the sins of the world and we inexplicably come into contact with the God who extends mercy to us even in the midst of our horrible condition.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. And yet it is given to us.

Today is the beginning of a season in which we are reminded of the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. During these Lenten days we need not surround ourselves with excuses and denials, we need not lie to ourselves and to other, we need not live our lives as if everything we do is entirely on our shoulders.

The judged judge has already come to stand in our place. 

To borrow the language from Isaiah – Jesus is the one who breaks the yoke of sin that constantly pushes us to and fro.

Jesus is the one who shares the bread of life, his own body, with people who are hungry for something more.

Jesus is the one who provides a new home to people like you and me who were once far off in our isolation from God and one another. 

Jesus is the one who covers us in the waters of baptism so that we will no longer be ashamed of who we are. 

Jesus is the one who answers when we cry out for help with the triumphant declaration, “Here I am!”

Ash Wednesday can be a day for us to wallow in the truth that none of us makes it out of this life alive. It can be a time for us to confront our finitude and fragility. We can hear the words as the ashes are imposed and think about all the stuff we should start doing.

But Ash Wednesday is also a reminder that all of our so-called work toward righteousness counts for a whole lot of nothing. God is not the great ledger keeper waiting to see if we’ve done enough or not.

Instead, God is the one who condescends to the muck and misery of life, who draws into himself the hostility of sin in the person of Christ, who ascends onto the hard wood of the cross in response to the hatred of humanity, and who triumphantly proclaims through the empty tomb that we will never be defined by our sins.

We are defined by our Savior. Amen. 

A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads. 

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church. 

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This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church. 

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal

Luke 3.7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 

For 16 days in a row, my 2 year old son has scarfed down his food at the breakfast table with reckless abandon. Cheerios and yogurt and eggs and bread have flown from plate to mouth and to the wall and to the floor like the Tasmanian devil himself was starving. And with the final mouthful he will triumphantly declare, “I’m done!”

And then he’ll stare at the pantry with gleeful expectation.

We will, of course, reorient his demeanor and disposition to the Christmas tree advent calendar where he practices counting his numbers in order to pick a magnetic ornament to hang as we get closer to Christmas Eve, but all he really wants is The Incredibles themed chocolate Advent calendar we have hidden in the pantry.

He will sit there with his fingers twittering like a mad scientist and then his eyes will dart all across the thin cardboard box until he finds the right number and he will promptly scarf down the terrible tasting piece of chocolate all while grinning from ear to ear.

Happy Advent.

And, I’ll admit, there is something in me that just wells up with all kinds of fatherly and joyful feelings when I see the daily practice. Behind the frenetic eating patterns, and the impatience to ingest sugar at 7 in the morning, there is an anticipating, a waiting, for what is yet to come.

At least, that’s how I felt until I read something this week. 

Fleming Rutledge is, without a doubt, one of my favorite theologians and preachers. As a preacher, her sermons are the kind that make me feel like I’m terrible at what I do. 

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Nevertheless, I was reading through a collection of her old Advent sermons this week and I came across one on the same text that we just read. And this is how she begins the sermon: “I’ve always wanted to design an Advent calendar. You would open up one of those cute little windows and there would be John the Baptist glaring at you saying, “You brood of vipers!”

Imagine a wildly bedraggled man, smelling up to high heaven, clothed in camel’s hair, with honey stuck in his beard, jumping out at you from behind one of your favorite Christmas decorations, only to shout, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!”

Happy Advent.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “John the Baptist? Again?! Didn’t we have to hear about this guy last week?”

And you’d be right. John the Baptist, the crazy prophet is back again, but this time he’s not mincing his words. You brood of vipers!

In Advent, there are plenty of other people from the Bible we might like to hear from. The angel Gabriel, or Mary, or even Joseph (though he doesn’t say much). But John is the central person of this season of being in the in between. He is the one who stands with one foot in each of the ages. He rests between how things are and how they ought to be. 

He is the last and the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. With every new prophet the declarations about the coming Messiah increase until they reach their electrifying zenith in John who says the waiting is over!

And how does he begin his message? What are the first recorded words we have in scripture from John the Baptist? He belittles the crowds who have gathered and he exhorts them with a to do list.

I’ve said this a lot already, but Advent is a really strange time in the life of the church. It is quite a challenge to place our theological fingers on the pulse of what this season is and what it means for people like you and me.

I can’t tell you the number of churches who are spending this Advent season doing a series like “How To Find Jesus In The Peanuts” (as in Charlie Brown), or “Christmas Through The Movies” in which a church will play clips on a Sunday morning and then a preacher will exegete what the people have seen, or even something like “The Best Present Is Presence.”

Those types of things draw forth these deep waves of warmth regarding the season and the are the theological version of sitting by a cozy fire with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

And, for as interesting and exciting as they might be, like a child devouring the daily chocolate piece, they don’t really have a lot to do with Advent. 

The readings we encounter in church at this time of year don’t leave us dreaming of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads, or feeling fuzzy and familiar fantasies… John the Baptist just called us a brood of vipers!

I think it would shock those from the early church to see the cutesy versions of the angels, and the mangers, and the virgin Marys we use to decorate our homes. I think they would be baffled by the sheer number of lights and inflatable cartoon characters we put up in our yards during the coldest part of the year. Which, to be clear, I love those things about Christmas. I love driving around to look at lights and taking the time to go through every member of a manger scene.

But we’ve got to admit that our Advent and Christmas observances are pretty watered-down and sanitized. No one wants to put up an angry John the Baptist inflatable or ornament in their tree.

And yet Christmas, what we are preparing for right now, is the stark and frightening and profound transformation of the world. It is surely worthy of shouting “joy to the world” but God refuses to leave the world the way that it is.

God will redeem God’s people, because we are in need of redemption!

The Good News of this season of waiting and putting our feet in two different places isn’t just that Jesus arrives, but that Jesus’s arrival changes people like you and me.

Back to Fleming Rutledge, she says Advent forces us to look at the dark sides of ourselves.

Now, I don’t need to take the time to regale you with stories about the brokenness of the world. All of us here know how messed up things are. No matter how many sentimental decorations we have, or how many gallons of eggnog we’ve consumed, or how many carols we’ve belted out at the top of our lungs, we know that things really are as bad as they seem, and we are not innocent.

We, brood of vipers.

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John sounds pretty judgmental. And we don’t like judgmental people. He spends the majority of his proclamation exhorting the people to do this, that, and the other and it is just plain exhausting: Give your coats away, repent for your sins, don’t extort people.

Doesn’t John know that we already have too much to do at this time of year?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t like being called a viper, or a filthy animal. 

I don’t like feeling judged.

But here’s the rub: those of us who don’t like hearing about judgment in church are usually those ones who have reason to fear being judged. Or, to put it another way, we who protest the judgmental behavior of others usually suffer from that same disposition without really realizing it.

Advent is a time where all that has been, at that is, and all that will be is made known to God. It is the time that all of who we are is opened up to the divine: our inner thoughts, our knee-jerk reactions, our biases, our prejudices, our everything. We are laid bare and judgment is coming.

There is a new exhibit in DC at the Bible Museum that features a very interesting bound collection of scripture. The so-called “Slave Bible” was printed by the Missionary Society For the Conversion of Negro Slaves in 1808. Though labeled “Holy” on the cover, it is anything but; in order for Christian missionaries to convert enslaved African peoples to Christianity they created a bible but they removed any verse that had any references to freedom, equality, and resistance.

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In the end the Slave Bible is missing 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament.

And Christians, that’s people like us, used that particular book to keep particular people in bondage. 

What were we justing singing? Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…

All has, is, and will be made known to God. The final reckoning is going to take place. That’s what John the Baptist is yelling about – the ax is lying at the roots of the tree!

But we’re not quite there yet. And, strangely, something has already taken place. The Judge of all things is arriving and has arrived.

His name is Jesus.

So take a moment and think, if you can stand it, about your own sins and secrets; not the sins and secrets of others, the Christians who have come before us. Think about the dark side of yourself. 

In Advent we are bombarded with the notion that one day all of us will bring those very secrets before the throne of God and the great Judge will see us for who we really are.

But here’s the craziness of the gospel: the Judge is not like what we so often fear. Our great Judge is filled with compassion and comes to us with wounds in his hands and feet.

This is a paradox befitting the faith: the judgment we hear from the lips of John has already happened. It has taken place in the very body of the Judge.

Jesus, the Judge who is to come, has already given himself to be judged in our place.

Vipers, crucifixion, judgment… It is strange to hear these words in Advent while we’d rather consider Frosty, and Rudolph, and the one who has a belly like a bowl full of jelly. But it is an even stranger thing to realize that Advent and the Cross are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

If Advent is the time to contemplate the dark side of ourselves then this season sheds light on the truth that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross. We really are the unrighteous, the vipers, for whom the Son of Man was hung on a tree.

This is our Jesus; bloody and bedraggled. This is the One for whom we wait this time of year. And that’s why John the Baptist is the central figure in Advent. 

He reminds us that we were unworthy but Jesus counted us worthy. 

He reminds us that we deserved judgment but in Jesus we found mercy. 

He reminds us that we were slaves to sin and death, but that Jesus brought us to righteousness and life.

Hear the Good News! Jesus’ arrival both from the womb and from the tomb means that he will not let us remain as we are. He is the judged Judge who stands in our place. He is, in himself, the Good News. 

So, Happy Advent Ya Filthy Animals. Amen.

You Deserve To Die

Ash Wednesday tends to bring out the best, and the worst, in us. We’re forced to confront our finitude while giving thanks to God for not abandoning us to our own devices. We are marked with signs of the cross and told to not practice our piety before others. We are reminded that we are dust, and then promised that dust is not the end.

It’s a lot of fun.

And because Ash Wednesday is fun, the team from Crackers and Grape Juice got together to record a brief conversation about the liturgical holy day, and the season of Lent that Ash Wednesday inaugurates. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: You Deserve To Die

 

 

Suffering Envy

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for Ash Wednesday [Year B] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-20). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the day of the Lord, true repentance, weeping in church, hiding in the bushes, prayer in public school, and being forced to act like a Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Suffering Envy

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Devotional – Psalm 106.1

Devotional:

Psalm 106.1

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Sunday morning we will spend most of our worship service confronting the question “Why Do We Pray?” Prayer has been part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of the church. Prayer, fundamentally, is about taking time to be with the Lord as well as a desire to change our circumstances. And for as important as it is to talk about why we pray, the question of how we pray is equally worth our time.

When I was a kid I was taught how to pray using the acronym PRAY: Praise – Repent – Ask – Yield. We begin praying by praising God for the marvelous works God has made real in our lives, then we repent and apologize for how we have failed to be the people God has called us to be, then we ask for how we need God to change our present circumstances, and then we conclude by yielding to God’s will. The PRAY way to pray is helpful for setting up a rhythm of what it means to commune with God, but it can also be limiting.

If our prayers follow the same pattern over and over again, we run the risk of no longer meaning what we say, or worse: we say things without realizing what we’re saying. Additionally, the PRAY model can result in us being tempted to ask God to change trite and insignificant things in our lives, instead of the deep reflection on what it means to yield to God’s will being done in our lives.

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Praying through PRAY can be helpful when we no longer know what to say, but some of the best prayers I’ve ever heard (or read) do not follow the model at all. Because, after all, prayer is not about checking off the box; prayer is about learning how to listen to God in the midst of loud and chaotic world.

Sometimes faithful prayer looks less like getting on your knees and clasping your hands together, and more like sitting in a quiet space for five minutes. Sometimes faithful prayer sounds less like all the big adjectives we use in church on Sunday and more like a conversation we have with a friend over the phone. Sometimes faithful prayer is less about following any model or rhythm and more about finding a way that works for us in order to hear what God has to say.

I have friends for whom using crayons in a coloring book is the best way to pray. For others, prayer is at its best when it is the complete absence of any distraction. And still yet for other, the PRAY model is the best way to pray.

The point of prayer is not so much that we have to pray a certain way, but that we do it in the first place.

An Inconvenient Truth

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordained him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payments to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same salve, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have mad mercy on your fellow slave, and I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I don’t know what it is about weddings, but people really let themselves go when they gather to celebrate two individuals joining together. Maybe it’s the beauty of a ceremony focused on love, or perhaps it’s the atmosphere of family members and friends rejoicing together, or maybe its just the abundance of free alcohol, but weddings are a rare moment where people appear to be the truest selves.

If you were here last week you’ll know that I wasn’t. While Michael was bringing the Word I was flying back from Maine where I had just presided over a wedding ceremony for one of my best friends. And I want you all to know that I missed you. I missed being here in this place worshiping together, I missed the choir, I missed seeing all of your beautiful faces.

That’s not to say that I had a bad time at the wedding. On the contrary, I had a great time. People were so over-the-top with their compliments about the wedding sermon and ceremony, perhaps because of the libations, or maybe because many of the people in attendance had bad experiences of weddings in the past and I offered something different. I don’t know what it was, but people seemed to like it.

Now, I want to share with you all that I made a few mistakes at the wedding. During the prayer before the dinner at the reception I made an offhand comment about how people needn’t hide their wine glasses behind their backs when they talk to me because, after all, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. I even prayed about how we should celebrate together and learn to party like Jesus.

If only I hadn’t used those last three words. Because, throughout the rest of the evening, a slew of people who were really enjoying themselves would wander over, slap me with a high five and scream, “Party like Jesus!”

Another mistake: I never quite know what to do when the bride and groom kiss for the first time. I mean, I’m right up there next to them and that moment is a favorite for photographers. So, right before I said, “You may kiss the bride” I took a step back and bowed my head so as not to appear too creepy in any photographs. However, what I didn’t anticipate was how my baldhead would appear like a shining beacon in the photos that are now all over Facebook.

But all in all, it was a remarkable celebration and I count myself blessed to have been part of it.

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During the reception, while I was milling about and striking up conversations with people, there was a youngish man who approached me and outstretched his hand. He made a few kind comments about the ceremony and as if he felt guilty due to my presence he said, “You know, I haven’t been to church in a long time.” I hear that kind of thing all the time and I never know how to respond so I just don’t.

And then he continued, “But,” he said, “If church was like that ceremony I’d be there every Sunday.”

I should’ve said “Thanks” and politely walked away. But instead I opened my big mouth: “Church shouldn’t be like that every week.”

“Why not?” he asked.

            “Because, if church was like that every week, we wouldn’t need it.”

I’m not sure what has happened over the last few decades in the church, at least in the United Methodist Church, but there was a time when one could expect to hear just about the same sort of message every Sunday: we are sinners.

But no more. Instead of confronting that rather inconvenient truth, we want to make believe that the church is full of saints. We’d rather hear about grace than sin, we want to talk about mercy and not sacrifice, we want to be built up and not broken down.

We want our Sunday services to look more like celebratory wedding ceremonies than the confrontational and convicting services of the past.

It’s as if, because we want to appear so perfect on the outside, we have forgotten who we really are on the inside.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone in the church who has sinned against me? Seven times?” And Jesus said, “You’ve got to forgive seventy-seven times.”

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Notice the context of Peter’s question, because it’s important. Forgiveness is often used in this overwhelming sense of totality. If someone gossips about me at work, should I forgive them? If someone cuts me off on the highway should I forgive them? But Peter doesn’t ask about anyone sinning against him, he asks about people who sin against him in the church.

Forgiving someone from the church is very different than just forgiving an individual from the community or even someone on the other side of the world. Frankly, its easier to forgive someone you’ll never see again than it is to forgive someone you’re going to see every Sunday for the rest of your life.

And notice the fact that Peter assumes he will be the one in a position to forgive. Which is to say, Peter assumes he will be the one who has the power to forgive.

Peter was a sinner, just like the rest of us. And, just like the rest of us, his chief sin was being blind to the fact that he was a sinner.

The inconvenient truth of our sinful and broken identities is that we expect the world, and others, to be perfect. Peter listens to Jesus and wants to know how many times he should forgive another person. A man goes to a wedding and wishes that church services could be filled with joy and happiness every single week. We want to know how many times we have to forgive someone because we are so convinced that others will sin against us and we forget that we sin against others as well.

Jesus’ response to Peter probes and prods us to ask ourselves, “How can we be at peace with one another?” But more than that, even more than forgiving one another seventy-seven times, Jesus’ words are all about how God has first forgiven us.

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The man at the wedding just stared at me while people were gyrating on the dance floor. He thought about my comment for what seemed like a mini-eternity and then finally said, “Well, I think more people would go to church if it were like that every week.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but the church isn’t in the business of growing for the sake of growing. The church is about telling the truth. And sometimes, offering and receiving the truth hurts.

I don’t like preaching about forgiveness because I’m so bad at it. I don’t like having to stand it this place and talk to people like you about it, because in doing so it’s like I’m holding up a mirror and realizing, all over again, that I’m a sinner.

Maybe you’re like me and you hold grudges, or you get frustrated with people, or sometimes you just can’t imagine forgiving someone for what they’ve done.

Maybe you’re like me and you want to put conditions on forgiveness.

Maybe you’re like me and sometimes the golden rule of, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” turns into “do unto others as they have done unto you.”

Offering forgiveness isn’t easy.

            Receiving it might be even worse.

Jesus doesn’t leave Peter and the disciples with the seventy-seven times of forgiveness. He goes on to tell them a story.

A king forgives the debt of one of his slaves, who then berates a fellow slave for a much smaller debt. When the king receives word of what happened, he confronts the first slave about his inability to be merciful and orders him to be tortured. And then Jesus ends with this: “so it will be with you if you do not forgive your brother and your sister.

Jesus’ story, this parable meant to shed light on the virtues of forgiveness, is purposely intense. It is meant to be shocking. There is no way a slave could ever owe a king so much money, there’s no way the slave would ever be able to pay it back, nor would a king ever forgive such an outrageous debt.

But that’s what forgiveness is really like. It feels impossible and out of touch with reality.

Someone can do something that seems so small to others, but to us it can feel like a debt that is unachievable. We can be so fueled with anger over what people have done to us that we might want them to be tortured for what they’ve done.

Jesus’ response to Peter, to be honest, is pretty irresponsible. I mean, how logical is it to grant unlimited forgiveness? What kind of community can be sustained where individuals will be forgiven over and over and over and over?

But Jesus’ parable isn’t about us! It’s about God.

God is the one who first forgives our debt that we can never repay. Our sin, who we really are on the inside, our prejudices and our judgments and our mistakes, the things that are only known to us are such that we should never be forgiven. If we took the time to lay out all of our sins on the altar, if we listened to one another confess who we really are, we might not be able to look at one another ever again.

My friends, hear this inconvenient truth: You and I, we’re sinners. We’re broken. Some of us more than others, but all of us are sinners.

            That’s not something that’s easy to hear: I know it. I don’t like holding the mirror up to who I really am either.

Jesus knew that those who chose to follow him would wrong one another, that the disciples then and now would sin against each other, that there would be conflict. Therefore Jesus doesn’t offer a way to eliminate or avoid conflict, instead Jesus tells Peter and us what to do with it: We must remember who we really are.

If we are to be peacemakers capable of forgiving one another, we have to remember that God first forgave us.

If we are to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive over and over again, we can only do so when we remember how God first forgave us.

If we are to be the church, then we have to know and believe that church is going to be messy sometimes. We’re going to hear and receive things in this place that will be hard to hear and receive.

The church cannot be a never-ending wedding feast.

Earlier in the service each of you were given an index card and you were asked to write down the name of someone from whom you need forgiveness.

I think it would’ve been all to easy to write down someone’s name you need to forgive and say, “when you leave church today, call them or text them and let them know they are forgiven.” But that would be too easy.

What’s harder is to look at the name of the person you wrote down and think about how, today, you can get in touch with them and ask them to forgive you. I promise it’s going to be hard to do, and it might actually make the situation worse than it is right now. When you have to ask someone for forgiveness you’re forced to recognize that you’re not as perfect as you think you appear to be.

This isn’t going to fix everything; it’s not going to make all the problems in your life disappear. And for that I am sorry. But we have no business, at all, talking about forgiving someone else unless we are willing to ask someone to forgive us for what we’ve done. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 32.5

Devotional:

Psalm 32.5

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

 Weekly Devotional Image

I want you to take both hands and squeeze them into fists as tightly as possible (seriously). They need to be tight enough that you actually feel strained as you do so. Keep them squeezed and think about something you’ve done recently that could be qualified as a sin. It could be as simple as getting really frustrated when that person cut you off at the grocery store for the line marked “Ten Items Or Less” and it was clear that they had at least 40 items in their cart; or the anger you experienced when your child brought home that less-than-stellar report card; or the shame you felt when you caught yourself flirting with someone while you were currently in a relationship with someone else. Just think of a recent sin.

Now: Quickly release the tension in your left hand. But don’t let go with your right; keep that one tight. You’ll notice that your left hand might have a little tingling sensation from being held tightly for a few moments, but otherwise it should feel relatively normal.

Yet, the longer you continue to hold your right hand clenched in a fist, the more it will start to hurt. At first it was fine, maybe even comfortable, but now you can feel the little aches in all the tiny muscles, you can even feel the blood struggling to flow where it needs to go.

But don’t let go.

Clenched Fist

Think about that same sin again. What did you do with it? Did you let it percolate and grow into something much bigger? Did you confess your sin to the Lord? Did you share your struggle with anyone else and ask for help?

Keep that right hand tight for just a little bit longer.

And now release the tension slowly.

It’s going to hurt. As your fingers gradually stretch back out you will feel stabs of pain in the muscles as your hand regains it’s feeling. And, once you finally flex them all the way out, they’ll probably start curling back into a fist without you trying to do so.

Sin is like our clenched fists. We all sin, every single one of us. From the four-year-old preschool student, to the life-long Sunday school teacher, to the Mom or Dad just trying to make sure the kids have their lunches ready before they leave for school. We all sin.

We can, like our left hand, release the tension of our sins quickly. In the moment we can recognize where we have fallen short of God’s glory and, as the psalmist puts it, we can confess and repent of our transgressions to the Lord and be forgiven. However, most of us are more likely to treat our sins the way we treated our right hand; we let them simmer and boil for far too long so that by the time we actually confess it hurts all the more, and the more likely we are to descend back into that kind of behavior.

The Lord will forgive our sins, but we have to confess them first.