Occupied

Matthew 21.1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The city was occupied.

The occupiers came through once a year with a big military parade to remind the occupied that they were, in fact, occupied. And they were smart about it, they knew that the religious festivals in the spring were a time when people got all ramped up, so they prepared to make a sign of strength at the same time to, as they put it, keep the peace.

And so it came to pass, early one Sunday morning, the roads were cleared as the citizens of the city hid behind the curtains in their homes, the parade began. The weight of the tanks broke up the smooth city streets, the ICBMs were pulled behind countless trailers, and scores of soldiers marched in step while shouting out their maniacal military mantras. 

It was terrifying.

And it was meant to be.

On the other side of the city, another parade was starting, though this was was different in every way imaginable.

The Teacher, that’s what they called him, had sent two of his followers ahead very early in the morning with the simple instructions to find something that would help them get into the city. They searched in vain, knowing that many were afraid of the comings and goings on the other side of the city with the displays of violence, but eventually they came across an abandoned tricycle sitting on its side in the front yard of what appeared to be a vacant house. So they took it and brought it to the Teacher.

Perfect.

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Hours later, while word of the military parade spread from house to house, the Teacher rode into the occupied city striding atop his tricycle, with pink and purple streamers coming out of handlebars. It was a richly symbolic act, entering from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner of those on the other side. Instead of riding on that which kept people afraid, the teacher came with the anti-war parade – it was a mockery of the occupiers’ intimidation and it was triumphant.

As he rode and swerved left and right through the streets, Twitter was ablaze with the news that the Teacher was finally in the city, and droves of people left the shelter of their homes to get a glimpse of the one who they believed was coming to deliver them. The numbers grew and grew, and the fervor swept over them as they took off their jackets and waved them high in the air. They even started taking flowers out of the ground and placed them on the road like a royal carpet.

They shouted things like, “The King is here! Finally! Save us!!!”

The further he made it into the city, the louder the crowds became, and the people were in turmoil – between the two parades that Sunday morning they knew not who would win.

Everyone was so preoccupied with the occupation and the signs and the singing that no one noticed the Teacher’s face, because the longer he rode on his tricycle, the more he cried. He wept knowing that he was enter as the prince of peace, and yet within the week those very crowds that shouted for salvation would also be the ones begging for his execution.

On Monday, the Teacher made his way to City Hall with other citizens. Knowing all that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the crazy man with the expectation that things were finally about the change. He walked slowly, taking in the sights of the marginalized being pushes even further toward the margins, and the bankers lending out money with exorbitant interest rates. 

For three years he had been going through the surrounding territories berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and the outcast, he once told a yuppie to sell everything and give it away, and that Monday morning, before anyone realized it, the Teacher grabbed a nearby lamppost, pulled it right out of the ground, and started swinging. He destroyed the tables and the stands and the signs of what was happening in the heart of the city, and the crowds stood in shock.

The elite and powerful, those who benefited from the occupation, now had their attention on the Teacher. It was one thing to have a crowd cheering for a man on a tricycle, but to disrupt the economic scheme that was putting money in their pockets was something else entirely. 

Something had to be done.

On Tuesday, the Teacher went back to City Hall and he began to teach in the open air. If the people were excited to see his entry into the city, they were now even more eager to hear what he had to say having thrown out those who represented all of the economic disparity. Of course, it wasn’t just the poor and downtrodden that gathered to listen, some of the religious authorities and the elite were there too and they kept demanding to know who he thought he was to speak with such authority.

The Teacher spoke in riddles, telling stories about one thing that were pointing at something else. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful were actually the weak and, worst of all, he called them hypocrites.

He accused them again and again of neglecting to honor the very things they talked about all the time, how they were the ones truly responsible for the occupiers entering year after year, and that no matter what they did or said or believed, there was nothing they could do to stop him.

The Teacher had quite a following at this point, he had taken away the means of economic injustice from those in power and now he was calling them vipers. They tried their best to trap him in his words, but went on as if they weren’t even there.

On Wednesday the Teacher left the city and traveled to a nearby hill where he continued to teach. Some of his followers made comments about the beauty of the city from their high vantage point, but he responded by telling them that all of it was coming down, not one stone would be left.

He talked about his new order, one in which those would be blessed who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, befriended the lonely, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick. 

He pointed at the children in their midst and said that unless the adults started acting like the kids, none of them would have a spot in the new kingdom. And he ended with his favorite catchphrase about the first being last and the last being first.

For those at the bottom of all things, this sounded like Good News, but for those in power in the city, this was too much.

On Thursday, the Teacher continued to teach and gather with his followers, but it was time for the religious festival so he retreated to an apartment in the city with his closest friends. They told stories about the past, what had led each of them to where they were. They shared a few bottles of wine, and kept partying late into the night.

But before it was all said and done, the Teacher took a nearby loaf of bread and said, “Hey, this is me, and I’m going to give myself for you. So when you eat it, remember what I did.” And then he took a nearby cup and said, “This is my blood, I’m pouring it out for you and the world. Do this whenever you drink to remember me.” They feasted and celebrated, but one of the friends left through the backdoor when no one was looking. He loved the Teacher, but some of what he said had gone too far, and he was going to put it to a stop before they were all killed.

Later they traveled to a nearby garden, the Teacher urged his friends to stay awake but one by one they fell asleep. So he knelt on the ground and he prayed about all that was going to take place. The last thing he said in his prayer was, “Let your will be done.”

And as he looked up from his posture of prayer, the betrayer arrived with soldiers. They quickly rushed into the garden and arrested the Teacher. The dozing followers ran off in fear not knowing what was about to happen. 

On Friday the Teacher was brought before the occupying Governor, the one who arrived at the city in the military parade. The soldiers and the leaders demanded that the Teacher needed to be publicly executed. But the Governor, strangely enough, could find no fault with the man. So he decided to bring the Teacher before a crowd of people and offer them a choice. They could free the Teacher, or a leader of the terrorist rebellion who was responsible for destruction across the city. 

The same people who were on the road less than a week before shouting “Save us!” now shouted with reckless abandon, “Execute him!” So the leader of the rebellion was freed, and the Teacher was sentenced to death.

Soldiers stationed nearby beat and whipped the Teacher right to the point of death and, to mock him, they covered him with a three piece suit and a striped power tie. They forced him to carry the instrument of his death, a noose, up to the top of a hill for all eyes to see. As the soldiers strung up the line from the highest branch on the highest tree, the Teacher looked out over the scene and said loud enough for people to hear, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.” 

And then they placed the rope around his neck, and pulled until he was hanging in the air. And the Teacher died.

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with Hosanna and ends with Crucify. It begins with life and ends with death. 

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Typically, I resist the temptation to tell the whole story of Jesus’ final week on Palm Sunday because I want to encourage folk to come to services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But, knowing this year is a strange year with the calls for Social Distancing, I know not who will be able to join us online for worship on Thursday and Friday and I can’t help but think that if all we encounter today is the crowds waving their branches with their Hosannas and their hope, then Easter doesn’t make sense. 

Or, to put it another way, why did Jesus go from being loved to being dead? 

The passion week, no matter how it’s told, refuses to let us imagine it as some sort of spiritual or ethereal dilemma. It is fleshy and tactile and real. It takes place in time, in our time. It compels us to encounter the truth of the incarnation, that God chose in Christ to come and dwell among us. And even more, it forces us to come to grips with the fact that we nailed him to a tree.

I return again to the question of Jesus’ death. It is strange that Jesus was killed considering how we so often talk about him inside and outside of the church. Jesus who just wants us to love each other a little bit more. Jesus who just wants us to engage in active listening. Jesus who just wants us to spend more time in our Bibles and more time in prayer. Why would anyone kill anyone pushing that kind of message?

Why did Jesus have to die and why did he have to die on a cross? Well, because that’s the way the Romans executed those deemed a threat. Hang them high so all can see what happens if you challenge the powers and the principalities. 

Why did Jesus have to die? He wasn’t what we wanted.

We don’t crucify people anymore – we’re too dignified and respectable for that. Instead we isolate them in prison, we demonize them on Social Media, and we berate them behind closed doors. We can’t stand those who would call into question the practices and policies that put money in our pockets, we stifle anyone sniffing around our firstness and rightness and presumed righteousness. And we certainly don’t want anyone to ever call us hypocrites.

Or, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.

Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love. 

Holy Week isn’t about us. It’s about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of Jesus’ death we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can to do save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the city under occupation and in the end occupies our place on the cross. 

The crowds demanded their salvation, and Jesus gave it to them by giving himself. 

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Amen. 

The Grammar of Faith

Genesis 12.1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy. 

Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.

It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.

These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house. 

They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world. 

They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.

But what about the other Christians? 

What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?

To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.

Which, of course, is absurd. 

But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.

We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble. 

And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.

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Every verse in the Bible is important.

That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.

Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…

That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.

Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.

The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.

Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).

How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.

And it comes down to grammar. 

Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize

God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.

The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.

But we don’t like this. 

Not one bit. 

So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.

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I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night. 

She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.

I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.

It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.

We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.

And that is exhausting.

For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him. 

But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren. 

That’s it.

And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.

God chooses nobodies to bless the world.

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I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.

Or someone like you. 

And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.

God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.

If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.

We can’t even keep our promises.

But God does. 

Always.

That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.

Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.

But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.

It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.

He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.

He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.

That only led to more of the same in his life.

Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.

An invitation that felt like an invasion. 

“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”

There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary. 

He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this: 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.

That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own. 

Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.

The Condition Of Our Condition

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that it in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 

This is where it all really starts, here back at the beginning. Sure, we’ve got the creation of the whole cosmos in the first seven days in Genesis 1, but this is where the story gets good.

It gets juicy.

The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the greatest of stories, up until the advent of Jesus Christ. What we discover and find here in the garden is inexhaustible, it can never be fully mined, and it cannot be explained away. So much, if not all, of who we are is founded upon what happens to these two with their mid-afternoon fruit snack. 

Today we re-enter the strange new world of the Bible and learn how the created order became utterly disordered.

The garden is called paradise and in these few verses paradise is lost. Of course, when we hear the word “paradise” we conjure up in our minds all sorts of images and ideas that don’t really have much to do with Eden. It’s not all crystal clear beaches and palm trees and drinks with ice that never fully melt away. It is paradise simply because it was a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound too much like paradise to us.

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We can’t even fathom how communal the communion is because it just sounds wrong. And if it sounds wrong it does so because we don’t like the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God. 

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors and in our internet search histories and in our knee-jerk reactions. We know how quick we are to judge and how untrusting we can be, and frankly we’d like to keep God out of all that, thank you very much.

Whatever paradise might have been for Adam and Eve, whatever the community called communion looked like, it definitely wasn’t like the world today.

Nations reeling from the threats of the Corona-virus and what it means for the so-called global community.

Children relying on free lunches at schools during the weeks because they don’t have any food to eat at home over the weekend.

Individuals seeking solace and comfort in the digital community because meeting people in the real world has become too difficult or too frightening.

But here we find our first parents in the paradise of God and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You are never in need of anything at all! There’s just one teeny tiny restriction. Think of the generosity of God here before the fall. God has opened up the entirely of everything for them with one little exception, and it’s not enough.

Imagine it like this: You’re a child, and you’re spending the afternoon at your grandmother’s house. The weather is perfect outside and she’s got this incredible playground for you to enjoy, there’s a pitcher of cold lemonade waiting for you on the porch and you can do anything you want! Except, your grandmother tell you, you can’t leave the yard.

Fair enough right?

Until the next door neighbor comes to the slats in the fence and calls out your name. “Hey look, I’ve got a few toys over here on my side, why don’t you come over here and play with me?”

There’s one rule – don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Don’t leave the yard.

Enter the snake, the next door neighbor. 

Did God really tell you not to eat from that one tree?

Did your grandmother really tell you not to come and play over here?

God wants you to be able to eat – just take a bite.

Your grandmother wants you to enjoy yourself, come and join me.

The seeds of doubt are planted.

You can’t help herself, and before you know it you’re playing in the sandbox on the other side of the fence, the fruit is dripping out of the corners of your mouth.

And Adam, your best friend, he doesn’t even put up a fight and just jumps right in with the fun.

And your eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect of our first parents’ choice was instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There’s no going back to what life was like before. They’ve had a taste of the other side of the fence.

What do they fell with all of this new knowledge? Are they puffed up and feeling invincible? Are they ready to take over the world?

No.

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They are afraid, they are ashamed, they are embarrassed. They see themselves as they had never seen themselves before, and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion some fig leaves together to make clothes, and they go hide in the bushes.

This is the root of all sin. It was then and still is now. We want to be God. We want to determine out own limits. We want to be in control of ourselves and others. 

And whenever we catch a glimpse of our true selves in the mirror, when we recognize all that we want and can not and should not have, then we hide ourselves away in shame.

And that’s the end of the story. Or, at least, that’s where the scripture reading stops for today. But, of course, that’s not the end – it’s only the beginning. Everything is uphill from here on out – uphill because it never gets easier.

But perhaps never is too strong of word.

But lets not skip to the end too quickly.

In the garden they make their choice, they begin to see, and they decide the best course of action is to hide, from each other, from themselves, and from God.

Prior to their decision this fear and shame was inconceivable, but now they find themselves in the bushes.

And this, for better and much worse, is exactly who we are. We are stuck in the bushes for good, hiding in our own self-knowledge, hoping that God won’t find us and see us as we know ourselves to be.

This is truly where everything went wrong. 

It is the division between all that is good, namely God, and all that is bad, namely us. 

We are, whether we like to admit it or not, rebellious, disobedient, idolatrous, and selfish.

And it is precisely at this moment in the story, as we see Adam and Eve hiding, that we often let the story run off in the wrong direction. For, I hope you have noticed so far, that almost everything I have said in this sermon has been entirely about us – our choices, our mistakes, our futility. 

It hasn’t really been about God.

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This text, usually for the worse, has been used as a call to arms for those who would call themselves Christians in one of two ways. 

One, we are told about how bad we are and how badly we need to feel about how bad we are. We leave church wallowing in self-pity and feeling even more exhausted than we did on the way in for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

Or, Two, we’re told all about how people outside the walls of the church are bad and how it is our job to go out there and fix them in all of their badness by bringing them in here so they too can start feeling bad about how bad they are.

And, sure, sometimes we do need to feel bad about our badness. Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Of course not. 

But, that’s not the whole story. 

For as much as we might want to believe that its all up to us, or that the church exists to help broken people fix themselves, or that we have to go searching for God, or whatever else – that’s not the story of the Bible.

The story of the Bible is that God is the one who comes to be and dwell and find his lost, and broken, and even dead creation.

Notice, this is the first thing God does after the fateful choice of Adam and Eve. God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky or send in a billowing tornado out of anger. No, God goes into the garden, and like a loving parent (or grandparent), kindly intones, “Adam, where are you?”

Adam, Even, and all the rest of us are lost. And for some strange reason, we keep willing ourselves to believe that we are the ones who have to find ourselves. We keep trying to get back to Eden as if we are capable of doing so.

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things all in the attempts at making this life more like whatever we think paradise should be. 

We got rid of slavery only to instead have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We tried to protect the freedom of the individual and instead we got greater wealth inequality than just about any other place on the planet.

We tried to produce advancements in medicine, and I just read that American life spans have shorten for the first time in decades due to the rise in the opioid epidemic.

Think about that for a moment – scores of people in this country would rather commit slow suicide than have to keep living with people like us. 

Whenever we read this story from the beginning we forget that it is exactly that, a beginning. The rest of the Bible will be about how God refuses to abandon us even after we fail to listen again and again and again. God does not give up on his children even though they keep hopping the fence to go play with the forbidden toys. God keeps waiting on the porch with the lemonade.

And for a lot of scripture, that’s kind of the whole story. God on one side of the fence, and we his creatures hanging out on the other side. At times, God will toss over a little bit of manna, or a little bit of wisdom, to help make sense out of the chaos of our own making. 

But then Jesus, God in the flesh, breaks down the whole fence, brings a new creation into existence. God, in Christ, rectifies the wrongs of Eden and opens up a new paradise for us, one even greater than what we had in that first garden. 

And we, believe it or not, get a taste of the goodness of that promised garden right here and right now. This thing we call communion is both a foretaste of what is to come, and is also a call back to what we once had in the garden. This is what God offers us, even though we broke and break the rules, even though we chose to leave the paradise God gave to us. 

For we, despite our attempts at self-righteousness and best intentions, are the kind of people who, one Friday afternoon when the sky went dark, as church and state were finally working together, democracy in action, happened to torture the Son of God to death on a cross. 

And yet, with some of his final breaths he pronounces not damnation but instead invitation. The Son of man calls us by name, with open arms on the cross, and destroys the fence of our own making forever and ever. Amen.

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Exodus 24.12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. 

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Everything is politics.

Politics are everything.

I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.

Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.

Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.

Politics are even seeping into the church!

So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.

In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.

In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.

God surely has a sense of humor.

Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.

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The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.

And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.

Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.

But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.

The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God. 

Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.

And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.

But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.

The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything. 

For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.

Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past. 

It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do. 

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But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.

Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.

But none of us are good enough.

Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!

Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way. 

The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.

The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.

For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”

That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.

He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.

Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world. 

Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.

Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.

Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May. 

Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.

Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.

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None is righteous, no, not one.

That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.

We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.

Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.

The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.

Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. 

Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ. 

When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.

The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.

And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen. 

Good Times, Bad Times

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! 

I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.

But today it will be different.

This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.

To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.

What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.

Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.

And that’s okay.

After all, who can know the mind of God?

Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.

Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse. 

One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.

And what do they share with one another? 

Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.

The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.

A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.

A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.

I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.

Why-Do-Bad-Things-Happen-to-Good-People

And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster. 

It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.

And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?

These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.

There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.

But, of course, we must speak.

We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening. 

It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say. 

Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.

There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.

There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.

There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.

Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.

These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

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To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.

And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.

For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.

And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.

Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.

Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most. 

There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor. 

But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments. 

It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.

And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.

This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph. 

God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.

Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.

Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.

I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.

Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Those words accomplish nothing.

Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.

If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.

God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.

Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.

Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable. 

But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen. 

Mission Impossible

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

I have always been a “front row” kind of person. I wish it was because I am so dedicated to the things that I learn, but most of it is because I know that if I sit in the back, I’ll get distracted and stop paying attention. So when I was in college, I sat in the front row of all my Religious Studies classes, dutifully taking notes, and tucking it all away for the future.

In one such class titled “Hindu Traditions,” I was sitting in the front row listening to my practicing Hindu professor talk about how important his faith was to himself and to his family. And he was in the middle of a lecture when the girl sitting directly behind me raised her hand. When she coughed for our professors attention I turned over my shoulder and saw that she was proudly and prominently wearing a “Campus Crusade for Christ” teeshirt, and kept stretching her hand higher and higher as if that would get our professor’s attention. Reluctantly, he stopped lecturing and motioned for her to speak.

She said, “Dr. Mittal – If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you believe in Jesus to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and his nostrils flared before he blurted out, “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you foolish young Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, every worried about what Jesus was really saying, once questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were all going. Jesus’ response? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

Jesus does not know the way, the truth, and life, rather, he is all of these things. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God.

From the beginning of the church, this statement, this claim, has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace, you can only find it through Jesus Christ – hence the strong and persistent push for evangelism over the last 2,000 years. Which makes sense considering the fact that one of the last things Jesus ever said to his disciples was, “Go into the world baptizing all people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The tradition of the church is one that staunchly affirms that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, outside the church, there is no salvation. To experience the forgiving pardon of the Lord, to be taught the ways of the faith, to engage in acts of kindness and mercy, is entirely dependent of the existence and proclamation of the church. 

I can remember feeling so uncomfortable in the front row as my professor attempted to clam his demeanor. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or draw out the exact type of reaction that took place. But what if she was being genuine? What if she really was concerned about his salvation?

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Prayer

There are anecdotes about famous people that are just so good that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. Think of George Washington and the cherry tree. Did he really chop down the cherry tree as a child? Does that matter more than the lesson of telling the truth?

There are a lot of stories about Karl Barth, the dialectical theological of the 20th century who greatly upended, in the best ways, my theological understanding, many of which probably aren’t true. Like the time a student pridefully declared he had read everything Barth wrote to which Barth replied, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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So, whether its true or not, people used to push Barth about his universalist tendencies – the idea that, in the end, God saves all regardless. In his work he dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s work, death, and resurrection, but Barth never outright claims whether or not he believes it.

And, the story goes that a young student pushed and pushed Barth to respond to the claim of his universalism, to which Barth replied, “Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. This year alone has seen publications in the arena of theology both in support of universalism and against it. With the world becoming more diverse with every passing day, with different understanding of Christianity cropping up all over the world, the church is left with a question: “How big is the all of Christ died for all?”

We might think of the passage read today, and in particular Christ gathering up all things in him both in heaven and on earth. 

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God – every single individual having been molded from God’s divinity and given life through the Spirit regardless of later religious affiliations.

We might even think of the myriad examples from Christ’s ministry where he came for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. How he regularly shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the marginalized. How Jesus cared not one bit about their own morality or motivations, but simply declared, “I have come to set you free.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then God’s mercy and love and grace truly knows no bounds. God’s power is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to the entirety of creation!

The work of Christ then becomes the lens through which we see the beginning and end of all things, the One whose arms were still outstretched even on the cross, and how all are caught up in the cosmic victory over sin and death.

When Barth responded to the young man with his quip about a crowded heaven, he did so by avoiding the real question but still addressing the kind of hope made manifest in Christ – a hope that all Christians should have. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. All of us.

With all wisdom and insight Jesus has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Amen. 

In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Prayer

During my final year of seminary I served as one of the on-call chaplains at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay at the hospital for 24 hour periods attending to the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that would inevitably occur during our shifts. 

One night, after sitting with yet another family reeling in the wake of a loved one’s death, after holding hands with a woman who was just handed her final diagnosis, after pacing outside a room working up the courage to say the right words in a prayer, I found myself in the chapel. 

It was a tiny room, barely labeled, off one of the main hallways. It contained numerous religious pamphlets, an assortments of hymns and sacred texts, and toward the back there was a makeshift altar with a lined notebook that anyone could write a prayer in. Whenever I had a free moment during my shift, I would head to that space, flip through the notebook, and lift up the prayers that I found. 

But I mostly went to the chapel to get away from the rest of the hospital.

Every once in a while I would enter the chapel, expecting to find it empty as it often was, but instead I would find a Muslim doctor praying on the ground in the corner. We would always politely nod to one another but then continue on in our respective religious duties. But that night, the night where I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted, everything changed.

I was standing up at the altar, praying over the notebook, while he prayed in the corner. We both were speaking at a tone barely above a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. 

I felt him wrap his arm around my shoulder and he said, “Lets do it together this time.”

Without discussing the details, without making a plan, without debating our theological differences, we both began to pray, arm in arm, for the people we were serving.

I don’t know how long we prayed, I don’t even remember what we said, but when it was all over we hugged and then we went our separate ways.

Without a doubt, the existence of, and interaction with, other religious groups is perhaps the most significant challenge and opportunity for the church today. Moreover, with the rise of so-called the New Atheists and the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), we have entered to a confounding mosaic in which we are challenged to address those who do not believe and those who do believe and those who believe differently than us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths when they die? How can we relate to people of different religious persuasions? I’m not sure.

We can pick up the Bible and finds all sorts of answers – answers that include all or close out some or leave us with something in between. One of the great paradoxes of the church is that we affirm how there is no salvation outside the church and that through Christ all have been saved. 

Only God knows what will happen in the end, but until we meet our end, perhaps it is best for us to live by some of Jesus’ most challenging words: Love one another. Not love other Christians or love the people in the pews, but love one another. 

In my own life, God has used a great number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to follow Jesus. But at the same time, what we do in this place, what we do as a church, has saved me time and time again.

What has been revealed for us through Jesus, is that God desires us to be in relationship with others. This implies a willingness to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, people with no beliefs at all, and the people who are sitting right next to us in church. 

We are called to love one another.

Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may. Amen. 

Christmas With Karl Barth

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith. And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas Eve almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

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Below you can find some of the three most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord.”

Merry Christmas

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