Adventure Time!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 12.1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13.8-14, Matthew 18.15-20). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lead in the pipes, Rugrats, Christological readings, singing our faith, metaethics, dinner parties, the irony of solitary Christians, truth telling, and the need for grace. If you would like to listen to the episode (#200!!!) or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Adventure Time!

God Finds Us

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including middle names, Shea Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things), stinky feet, witnessed suffering, qualitative differences, hardened hearts, exhortations, wedding promises, and the loss of self. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Finds Us

Connected

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

“I’m bored.”

I’ve heard it more than a few times from more than a few people during this pandemic period.

Individuals forced to remain away from others so that the virus isn’t spread further and faster than it already has.

Families confined to their houses not knowing at all what “virtual education” will look like, let alone feel like.

Partners staring off into the distance at night not knowing what to do to pass the time.

“I’m bored.”

And yet, we, that is most of us in the West, have access to more entertainment than ever before simply because of a device in our pockets, the infinite reaches of YouTube, or the seemingly never ending array of binge-able streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBOMax, etc.

And, the question is, are our lives better?

I, for one, am grateful for the existence of something like Disney+ these days. It has been a joy to go through a number of old Disney films with my kid, films I, myself, watched as a kid. But when I take a step back from the whole thing, it makes me wonder about how connected we are to all things all the time.

Moreover, without the remarkable advancements in technology no one would be able to read this devotional online, we wouldn’t be able to stream worship services from the comfort of our couches, and we wouldn’t be able to video conference with those we love. 

But our connections are deceptive. 

With the click of a button we can access more information than anyone ever has in human history prior. And, to make it even more complicated, we are creating content at an unfathomable rate – we create as much information every two days now as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

And even though there is all this content, and we have access to it (and to one another), we believe we want to do and accomplish so many things but we’re mostly just spinning our wheels.

We want the newest and the fastest technologies because we want to have and use a power that we don’t need nearly as much as we think we do.

But we can no longer imagine a world without what we have.

Of course, all of this was bound to happen – faster connections to farther ideas and spaces. The power of technology often exceeds our real necessities of life and, in order to continue, technology must forever call forth new problems to fix and solve.

And there was no real way to prevent technology from becoming the crazy thing it is today. It gives us comfort and entertainment all the while providing anxiety and danger. 

Yet, we should never accuse technology of “having no soul.” For, it is actually our own irrational desire for unending power that has no soul.

The real problem with modern technology is us.

St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The Christian conviction of non-conformity is rather plain in scripture and is rather missing in our preaching and teaching. Instead of witnessing to the difference that Christ makes, we want to make Christ like us. 

Our non-conformist notions do not mean we have to throw away our phones or cancel our Netflix subscriptions, but they do mean we have to be mindful of how we use our technology and how much it shapes our worlds. For, technology is something we will forever consume assuming it will give us life. Technology is a sign to others (and to ourselves) about our status in the world. Technology promises a better world that, upon closer inspection, actually stays largely the same.

God, on the other hand, remains steadfast. God sees our insatiable desire for the next best thing and still chooses to march to the top of Calvary for us anyway. God has already made the world the better place in Christ Jesus.

It’s just that so many of us are so consumed by our technologies that we haven’t bothered to notice. 

Be Peculiar

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 1.8-2.10, Psalm 124, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reading in quarantine, managing people, personifying the powers and principalities, leading questions, preaching for the eye or the ear, participating in Christ, and making the right confession. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Be Peculiar

Strange

Romans 11.32

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. 

Christians see the world differently than everyone else.

Or, at least, we’re supposed to.

Think of any random subject or occurrence and there’s a better than good chance that Christians, as a group, feel differently about it than those outside the church.

Money? It comes from God first so it actually doesn’t really belong to us.

Parenting? The community of faith makes a covenant to raise the baptized to the same degree that parents do.

Sex? Physical intimacy is one of God’s good gifts, but it’s only really intelligible within the covenant made manifest in marriage.

I could go on.

And because Christians see and live in the world differently than others, it will forever make us strange.

The problem comes when we’re so consumed with appearing like everyone else that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between those inside and those outside the church.

Decades ago, when most of the people now leading the church were baptized into it, it was done so under the shadow of what we call Christendom

Christendom was (notice the tense) a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify what it meant to be Christian. Mostly, those differences were defined by the church saying what one could, or couldn’t do. But those differences were no different from what the county or the community thought was best anyway.

It was a time when it was assumed that people just went to church on Sunday mornings, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christians, and that so long as you said the right prayers, and gave the right amount of money to church, and made sure you did more good things than bad that everything would work out in the end.

That time, Christendom, is long gone and it ain’t coming back.

Karl Barth puts it this way: “Nothing has ever happened to change the fact that Christians — even in the middle of their supposedly and perhaps even very consciously Christian environment — will always be strange and threatened creatures. No matter how much they may know themselves to be in solidarity with the world and behave as such, the way of Christians can never be the way of the world — least of all the way of a presumably Christianized world.”

And Barth is right – to be Christian, is to be different. Christians are those who worship a God who became one of us, a God who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, suffered and died on a cross, a God who believes in us even when we don’t, or can’t, believe in God.

How strange!

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, right before making the great theological turn in chapter 12, he lets linger a rather confounding word: God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, to be Christian implies a willingness to see the strangest news of all: God knit us in such a way that we might be disobedient knowing full and well that he would offer us mercy in the end.”

The implications of this one sentence are tremendous. For, it means that Christians, as a group, see one another and the world differently. Rather than seeing the whole of humanity in a binary (outsiders or insiders, good or bad) we actually see the whole of humanity as disobedient. That, given are freedom of will, we often choose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should.

The real kicker comes with the latter half of the sentence: And God is merciful to all! Even in all our sin, even with all our mistakes, even with the selfishness and self-righteousness, God in Christ still marches to the top of Golgotha for us anyway!

That’s strange – it also happens to be the Gospel.

What Is Our Why?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 45.1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.10-28). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Augustine’s Confessions, the cost of reconciliation, Last Week Tonight, the oddity of unity, oily abundance, the irrevocability of the Gospel, cancel culture in the church, preaching in prison, and identifying with the right characters. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Is Our Why?

The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

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

Everything Happens

Romans 8.28, 31-39

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

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

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

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

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

A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.

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

“God just needed another angel in heaven.”

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

“This was all part of God’s plan.”

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

“That’s BS” she stammered.

Though she didn’t use the acronym.

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

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

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

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

It makes God into a monster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s nothing we can do about it. 

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

That’s the gospel.

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Remember Who(se) You Are!

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

Live Your Life So That The Preacher Won’t Have To Lie At Your Funeral

Romans 8.12-13

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

I did a funeral a while back for an older woman, and during the service people stood up to talk about how amazing she was how she always cared for everyone in her midst and how she was the paragon of virtue. We heard from grandchildren, co-workers, neighbors, it went on and on. 

When the funeral was over, I mingled among the gathered people, offering condolences and so on until I met the recently dead woman’s caretaker. She was wearing scrubs, having already moved on to a new client and was only able to get away for the funeral. We chatted briefly exchanging pleasantries until she said, “You know what’s strange Preacher? Having to sit there and to listen to all these people talk about how perfect she was. Because she was the meanest woman I’ve ever met in my life. She treated me worse than dirt.”

I stood there silently stunned unsure of how to respond.

And then she said, “It’s a good thing we worship a God of forgiveness, right Preacher?”

I have a great sign in my office that says, “Live your life so that the Preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.” 

I used to love how it would hang over the heads of those who came to confess yet another one of their sins. I hoped that it would convince them to shape up and start behaving accordingly without me having to say it.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve realized how strange of a theology the sign portrays. For, it implies that there are some people who have lived such good, and true, and virtuous lives that preachers don’t have to lie at their funerals.

But, that denies the real truth: Not a one of us is righteous, no, not one. We all fail to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. We avoid doing things we know we should, and we do plenty of things we know we shouldn’t.

And yet, how often have we gone to a funeral to listen to someone like me, a preacher, wax lyrical about the now dead’s holy life when we all know that all of our lives are more complicated than that?

For, the real truth is that all of us are the ungodly, we are the ones for whom Christ died. And that’s good news, because it means not a one of us is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness.

Which is just another way of saying that the only way any of us make it to the Kingdom of Heaven is because we worship a King of forgiveness.

Thanks be to God.