We Are The Stories We Tell

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.

Years ago there was a young man, still early in his ministry, who was appointed to serve a new church. 

At least, it was new to him.

He had gone to the right seminary, and studied all the right books, and prayed all the right prayers, and served in the right ways, and was excited about this next step in the adventure that is faith.

So with eager anticipation, he packed his bags and got in the car to go check out John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia.

This preacher was so excited, in fact, that when he arrived in town, before he unpacked his bags, he drove to the church. He typed the requisite address and admired the different varieties of trees planted perfectly along the road, but when came to his destination, he saw no church.

So he turned around, drove down the road once more and, again, no church to be found.

Finally, he got out of the car, and walked along the sidewalk for a closer inspection until he eventually found the church and he discovered why he missed it so many times: there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the grounds with roots exposed and the church sign, plus the majority of the building, were hidden behind the tree’s long branches. 

The preacher stood awkwardly on the front lawn of the church taking in the sight of the godforsaken tree, and decided he was going to do something about it.

So he drove back to his house, found the box containing his chainsaw, and then he set out to cut the tree down. He made short work of it, moving methodically from branch to branch (he was a Methodist after all) until, before long, he took a step back to admire his work.

The sign and the building were now completely visible from the road and he thought, rather proudly, that maybe just a few extra people would be in church on Sunday morning. 

A few days later, as the pastor sat down to continue chipping away at his first sermon for the church, he received a call from his District Superintendent: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the DS said, “because you’re being reappointed.” 

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. 

John Wesley himself had stood on the roots of that tree nearly 300 hundred years ago and preached to that community. Afterward, the gathered people decided to build a church right next to the tree in honor of the man who started a revolution of the heart, and that young pastor chopped it down.

Stories are remarkably important. Put another way: We are the stories we tell.

They contain and convey just about everything regarding who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held by and within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to share what it ultimately means to be human.

Today we live in a time of competing narratives in which every television show, every streaming service, every website, and every social media platform are vying for our allegiance and our attention. We are constantly bombarded, whether we like it or not, with information that attempts to tell us who we really are, what we really need, and where we are really going.

We live in a time in which more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live in a time in which people spend more time debating where they see the best view of fireworks, or what’s really going on in Loki, or which politician is finally going to set things right than they will consider the children in their community who have nothing to eat. We live in a time in which plenty of us would rather store up all of our treasures on earth without thinking at all about how every gift first comes from the Lord.

Right now, the world is telling us what is important and it’s not easy to discern between the voice of the world, and the voice of God.

But listen to St. Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the powers and principalities that try to define you. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Open your eyes to the beauty of the strange new world made possible by Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Whenever people like us gather like this we are bound together in loyalty to a story that once was not our story. But, through God’s wonderful and confounding actions in the world, that story is now our story. It is a story of cross and resurrection, of the first being last and the last being first, of undeserving people being forgiven.

That story will always but us at odds with the world.

And, according to the ways of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place. People are no longer regularly attending worship and that started long before a pandemic kept us in our houses on Sunday mornings. Christianity has lost its status in the public arena, we are becoming frighteningly illiterate (biblically speaking), and young people are almost nowhere to be seen when it comes to the body of Christ.

Did you know that the average age of a United Methodist is 58?

That means I still have 25 years to go before I’m average!

Did you know that the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years?

The world will tell us that the church is dead, that we have to do whatever we can, however we can, to get people in our building, that we need to cut down every tree (real or otherwise) that is blocking the church from the street, that we need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future because the church is dead.

Thanks be to God then, that we worship the Lord who works in the business of resurrection, of making a way where there is now way, of impossible possibility. 

We don’t have to conform to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! 

While others might shrink away or wail in fear regarding the statistics I just mentioned, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would the church change if we took seriously the radical nature of God’s grace? What would happen if we embraced the trees and traditions of the church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

We are the stories we tell.

Here’s part of mine: 

I am a cradle Methodist – I was baptized when I was 19 days old at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria VA, where I was raised and confirmed. I ran the sound system for worship as a tweenager, played for two of our worship bands, and spent even more time at the church because it was where my boy scout troop met every week. As a teenager one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident and I found myself ministering to friends and family using words that were not my own, but words that had been habituated into my life because of the church and the Spirit.

I began feeling like this might be what God was calling me to do with my life and when I told the senior pastor at my church his response was, “You wanna preach in a few weeks?”

I went to JMU to study religion, I went to Duke for my Masters in Divinity, met my now wife Lindsey while I was in North Carolina and we have a remarkable 5 year old named Elijah Wolf. 

My first appointment was to St. John’s UMC in Staunton, my last appointment was to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I love the church, I always have and I always will. For me, the church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather with people they have nothing else in common with save for the fact that Jesus has called them his friends.

I also love the church because I believe it is the better place God has made in the world. When we pray, when we break bread, when we baptize, we are all getting foretastes of the Supper of the Lamb that goes on and on forever.

Here’s what I know of your story:

I know that the church has been a beacon of the Gospel in Roanoke for 100 years. I know that you care deeply about the Word, about worship, and about mission. I know that you pride yourselves on your hospitality, something my family and I have been the beneficiaries of over the last few weeks. I know that you believe in the work of the Kingdom and are ready for the next 100 years. 

And now God has seen fit to string and knit our stories together.

Being a Christian is all about being brought into another story, a different telling of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that we call the Gospel – The Good News. 

And the stories from the strange new world of the Bible really do shape us – they speak greater truths than simple facts and statistics, they tell us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. That’s why Jesus never really simply explains anything to anyone, but instead is forever going on and on telling stories, stories we call parables. 

At the heart of the church is a willingness to share and to learn the art of story-telling. We learn one another’s stories by gathering for worship, or studying God’s Word, or serving the local and global community. We tell stories and receive stories so that we can cherish the roots of our foundations while, at the same time, looking to the future because God makes all things new.

The story of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church is entering into a new chapter. God is stirring things up in Roanoke. God is bombarding us with the grace that we don’t deserve but we surely need. And God is doing this not because there is a new pastor in town, and God is doing this not because the church is looking forward to the next hundred years – God is doing this simply because that’s who God is.

All of this, the church, the community of faith, grace, it’s all one remarkable gift. It’s the gift of a new past, in which the mistakes we’ve made are healed and the damage we’ve done is redeemed. We call it forgiveness. In the church and in the kingdom of God we are more than what we have failed to do, we are what God has done for us.

But it is all also a gift of a new future, in which the fear of punishment is annihilated and the terror of nothingness is obliterated – we’ve been promised resurrection. 

The Church is a new past, present, and future – it is a way of life made possible by Jesus in anticipation of God doing what God does best.

The world might tell us that the church is in a difficult place. But I look out from this pulpit to all of you gathered here in person, and to all of you gathered online, and I’m not worried about what the world has to say. I’m not worried about anything because my hope isn’t in me or even in any of you, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen. 

Last Things

Romans 1.16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Well, I finally did it! I managed to please everyone! Some of you were happy when I was appointed here, some were happy while I was here, and the rest of you are happy now that I’m leaving!

It was more than a decade ago that I entered seminary in hopes that I would, one day, get to do exactly what I’m doing right now. I was persuaded that the church was already the better place God had made in the world and I wanted to be part of that. And when I was in school for this, I didn’t learn about the virtues of nicety. That is, I didn’t go to seminary in order to learn how to make people feel better about themselves. That’s certainly not what I felt God had called me to do. 

And yet, more often than not, it’s exactly what I, other clergy, and most Christians do all the time.

Rather than speaking the truth, in love, we are far more inclined to sweep things under the rug.

Rather than taking seriously the Biblical commandments of discipleship, we are content with letting our faith be something that happens for one hour each Sunday.

Rather than hoping against hope for things not yet seen, we rest in the presumed knowledge that things will, largely, stay the same.

But none of that is very compelling, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.

Which makes me wonder, as I often do at times like this, why are you here?

For some of you, you can’t imagine being anywhere else. You’ve grown up in the church, or it has become so much of a fixture in your life that this is just what you do.

Meanwhile, some of you are here because you have more questions than answers and you want that to change. Maybe life has dealt you a raw hand, or you’ve experienced one too many hardships, or you’re frightened about what tomorrow might offer and you look to the church to help.

And some of you are here against your will. Perhaps a friend or a family member, in the name of love, brought you here and there isn’t anything you can do about it.

But chances are, no matter why we think we’re here, we’re actually here because we want to know more about Jesus.

I mean, people still keep calling me and sending me emails with rather specific questions about a first century carpenter-turned-rabbi, the Discovery Channel is forever producing new documentaries about the person in question, and people like you drive to places like this on Sunday mornings!

But here’s the truth, a truth not often discussed: we know nothing about Jesus whatsoever except what we read in the New Testament. That’s the rather bizarre part of Christianity. Sure, I’ve been to seminary and committed my life to this and study daily, but all of you have just as much access to the Lord as I do. It’s all right there in scripture.

As Paul says elsewhere: I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. On this, my last Sunday, I hope the same can be said of me. That is: throughout these last four years, I have endeavored to do one thing and one thing only: proclaim the Good News of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. 

But the story of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a story of scandal. It is, to use another Pauline expressing, shameful.

Consider the story, for a moment: A child born under extraordinary circumstances to entirely ordinary parents, raised in the forgotten town of Nazareth, propelled into a ministry of teaching and healing, surrounded by would-be followers who, when things got tough, abandoned him to the fate of death all on his own.

If the story of Jesus had ended with the crucifixion, none of us would be here. He would simply have been one of many who died at the hands of the state for causing too much of a ruckus. 

But that’s not where the story ends. 

In fact, it’s really where the story kicks off: Resurrection! He is risen!

And yet, that’s not often what we hear about Jesus. Instead, we’re inclined to lift him up as some moral exemplar or ethical genius. Neither of which are really true. Jesus broke all sorts of rules and it’s not a very good idea to tell people to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile unless (UNLESS) the one saying those things happens to be God in the flesh raised from the dead!

Now, take a gander at any of the epistles and you will see that there was, and perhaps always will be, an awareness that disciples are going to be tempted to retreat from Jesus in embarrassment, fear, or downright confusion. It happened prior to the crucifixion (See Peter) and it continues to happens.

And no one know this better than Paul.

Notice how he begins his letter to the church in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”

Those are strong words to the early church.

They’re strong words for the church today.

And right at the heart of Paul’s proclamation, and all of his letters, is the Cross.

For the centrality of the Cross to be so prominent in the Pauline epistles is rather odd considering how little it is mentioned or considered in the life of faith today.

There are new churches budding up in all sorts of places that have removed the cross from all worship services.

There are plenty of Christians who have settled with describing Jesus as a nice guy but never dare refer to him as the Lord.

There are loads of churches who envision themselves as yet another version of a boring civic organizing and nothing more.

And, you can’t really blame the church or Christians for doing so. In so many ways we’ve watered down the complete and confounding radicality of Christ’s death for the ungodly (that’s how Paul will refer to it in just a few chapters).

Jesus died an ungodly death for ungodly people.

That’s the scandal of the cross.

But, are we scandalized?

Most Sundays, whether online or in a parking lot or inside a sanctuary, we look like we’ve got it together. Or, at least that’s what we want others to think. But we certainly don’t consider ourselves ungodly or, at the very least, sinful.

In many ways, Paul’s proclamation is a terrifying declaration of knowing the condition of his condition. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” is but another way of saying, I am not ashamed of needing the Lord to do for me what I cannot and could not do on my own!

Do you see? Paul was at a place of recognizing how God is the one who meets us in Christ Jesus, God is the one who acts on and in our lives, God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Or, to put it another way, the Gospel is all about Jesus.

It’s all about what Jesus does for us.

Consider the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. One of them mocked the Lord just as much as the crowds did, but the other asked to be remembered.

Nothing else.

Think on that. He did nothing else. But Jesus says to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

I can’t wait to talk to that criminal in the eschaton. I want to ask him about his experience and what happened next.

I can see him walking around with the saints in glory and they’re all saying, “How did you get in?! You never went to church! You never sat through Sunday school! You don’t even know the Apostles’ Creed! How did you get in?”

And the criminal replies, “The guy on the center cross said I could come.”

I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power God for salvation to everyone!

I am not ashamed of the Gospel – I’m sticking with Jesus, I’m sticking with the church!

I know it might feel like we’ve got nothing to hold on to, but Jesus holds on to us!

The world will tell us many things, but the Gospel tells us something different – we are sinners beloved by the one we crucified. The Lord is risen from the dead and there ain’t nothing that can stop him. Jesus is Lord, God of all things past, present, and future.

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead, he says, “Bring to me your burdens and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, he says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners!”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults and our failures. Instead, he says, “You are mine and I am thine!”

No matter what happens, Christians are people of hope. We are people of hope because the Gospel is the Good News of God for the world. We need not worry over this, that, and the other because our hope isn’t in us. It’s not in me, or in Pastor Gayle. It’s not in the local community or even in the United Methodist Church. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. God is in the business of salvation and resurrection which means that no matter how bad we are or how good we are God can and will do what we cannot. Everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ died. 

We need not be ashamed of the Gospel, it’s the only Good News for a world drowning in bad news and it is ours, for free, for nothing. 

While we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sins, Christ died for us. He has taken the responsibility of salvation squarely on his shoulders. He has just gone and done it all without us having to do anything. And he invites us to simply trust that he has done this for us, and to proclaim that trust by acting as if we really believe it. Amen. 

A Trinitarian Pizza Party

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for Trinity Sunday [B] (Isaiah 6.1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8.12-27, John 3.1-17). Sara is the lead pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including book titles, color-coordination, coal callings, humility and humiliation, fireballs in the sanctuary, authoritative words, nighttime questions, and theological grammar. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Trinitarian Pizza Party

A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [B] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including older movies, promise keeping, Babel reimagined, different languages, the colors of creation, the gift of presence, holy hope, and diachronic pneumatology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope

The Grammar of Christian Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Dogmatics in Outline, covenants, proper fear, Taize worship, the coming generations, hoping against hope, flipping expectations, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Grammar of Christian Faith

Give God The Verbs

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben DeHart about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Luke 1.46b-55, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38). Ben is the Associate Rector at Calvary-St. George’s Church in NYC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including phenomenal music, the uncontrollable God, riffing on the Magnificat, Kingdom ethics, the Prayer of Humble Access, obedience, impossible possibility, Israel’s calling, Hell, and Fleming Rutledge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Give God The Verbs

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