O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
The praise service had been hitting all the marks – the band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their folding chairs. The gymnasium truly transformed into a place of worship and the people couldn’t get enough of it.
The sermon was delivered with a beaming smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side, celebrate successes, and to praise God in all times and in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether or not it was the caffeine, people were jazzed for Jesus.
Following the service, as was customary, the preacher stood by the door and shook hands with the people of God. His smile remained bright and shiny as each family, couple, and individual walked by.
Until one woman stormed past him and everyone else while muttering words under her breath.
The preacher apologized to the couple in front of him for the woman’s behavior and shouted at her as she sped across the parking lot: “Don’t forget to praise God!”
She stopped dead in her tracks, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her index finger into his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me feel what I’m feeling, and I’m never coming back.”
And she never did.
Happiness is such a fickle thing. Happiness comes and goes like the wind and we rarely hold onto it as long as we’d like to. The demands of life always catch up with us and for as much as might want to “keep on the sunny side,” the night will come.
The psalmist writes, “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.” And the word “happy” is notable because in other translations it is rendered as “blessed.”
And there’s a big difference between happiness and blessedness.
The differing translations come from the Greek word MAKARIOS which, at times, can mean happy, blessed, contented, and a slew of other things.
And yet, the words we use carry great meaning. For instance, happiness is often seen as a feeling that can change depending on one’s internal or external circumstances. Such happiness ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors. Happiness, then, is somewhat under our control. That is: we can make ourselves feel happy by engaging in certain activities.
But being blessed has little, if anything to do with our control and agency. We are blessed by others and not by ourselves. In other words, our blessedness is not within our own control but only something offered to us like a gift.
In the church we call it grace.
We are blessed not because of our own machinations or because we have earned it or deserved it. We are blessed because we are swept up in God’s goodness. The acts of God in Christ make us blessed.
Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century, translates being blessed like this: “You lucky bum!” To be blessed by God is nothing more than receiving something that we never should have received in the first place except for the fact that God delights in doing so.
Jesus doesn’t wait on the arms of the cross until we are happy enough or good enough or repentant enough before he declares forgiveness upon us and all of creation.
Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we get our lives sorted out, or right all of the wrongs, or exhibit perfect mortality before he returns to us resurrected.
Our happiness, whatever it might be, is fleeting and fragile. But our blessedness is sure and forever because it comes to us from the only One who can offer it in the first place.
Ours is the kingdom! What a bunch of lucky bums we are!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33, Psalm 130, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, John 6.35, 41-51). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including manscaping, movie theaters, lectionary lamentations, character identification, Robin Hood, examples of inequity, divine patience, temporal politics, ecclesial commands, heavenly bread, and comics. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Restless Contentment
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3.14-21, John 6.1-21). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the buffet of scripture, exvangelicalism, The Me Too movement, agency, ordered theology, prayers of the past, charismatic Methodism, future hope, community meals, and holy moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Power
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
Teer Hardy and I have a new book! Never Said It is our attempt to examine the all-too popular Christian catchphrases that don’t actually appear in the Bible. At all.
Here’s a little bit of the introduction from Dr. Johanna Hartelius:
“In this collection of sermons and brief reflections, Teer and Taylor (the Reverends Hardy and Mertins) pursue an intensely difficult subject, viz., how we contemporary Christians might understand Scripture – what is there and what is not there. The central idea of the book is what is not there, folksy adages that Christians rely on for guidance while ignoring the lack of biblical authority: “God helps those who help themselves, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” to mention just a few. Contrary to popular belief and although, as Teer points out, “The Bible says a lot things,” there are a number of fortune cookie idioms that Jesus never said, Paul never wrote, and the Old Testament never authorized.
In Never Said It, Teer and Taylor speak frankly and compassionately about why these sayings have been popular despite being fundamentally misleading, and why setting the record straight about them is worthwhile. That they do so by using a comic frame is important to recognize and come to terms with; humor is not dismissal of a serious subject, but a way to relieve the pressure of tragedy. As literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains, the comic frame may allay the “cynical brutality” of generally accepted truths that aren’t really truths at all. As Taylor says, imposters and distortions of God’s word have been used “as a weapon over and over again.” It is no laughing matter that “hate the sin” has been deployed to justify self-righteousness and the torment of our brothers and sisters; what may be laughable, however, if the laughter turns to self-reflection, is the endless human error of (ab)using God’s word to, in His name, inflict pain on His creatures.”
Is it important for Christians to have proof of God’s existence? What happens when we read verses out of context from the Bible? What, exactly, is pastoral care?
I was recently invited to participate in a recording for the 1000 Question Christian podcast in which we wrestled with answering the questions above. The whole conceit of the podcast is putting two clergy together to answer questions that people might be too afraid to ask their actual pastors. And, in a twist of fate (or the providence of God!), I was paired up with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun who, until recently, served the church that I will begin serving in July! If you would like to listen to the podcast you can check it out here: Proof, Poop, & Pastoral Care
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Jonah 3.1-5, Psalm 62.5-12, 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Mark 1.14-20). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including boredom, a eulogy for a fish, liturgical time, reading the WHOLE story, discipleship requirements, centering prayer, note passing, and God’s fishing net. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eschatological Patience
You can also check out Mikang and I “teaming” up for a devotional/musical video here: Let It Begin With Me
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
On Sunday countless churches across the world (at least those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary) were treated to the Gospel reading when Jesus reminds those with ears to hear that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.
Jesus does so in the Gospel of Matthew as a response to a lawyer who was seeking to trap him in his words. And Jesus, being Jesus, not only responds with an answer that left everyone speechless (“No one dared ask him another question”) but he stole his answer from other parts of the Bible.
Which is to say, Jesus’ pronouncement about loving God and neighbor isn’t unique to Jesus.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” come straight from Deuteronomy 6:5. And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18.
The more you read the scriptures, the more you enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more you realize that it is indeed strange because it is constantly repeating and re-interpreting itself. Karl Barth put it this way: “The Old Testament does not end in the New Testament but continues in it, just as the New Testament is already present in the Old Testament.”
The whole of the revealed Word of God is a living and confounding witness to the repetition of God with God’s people.
A few days ago, after putting the finishing touches on my sermon about Jesus’ treatise on love, I came across an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Some enterprising Christians took the time to diagram out all the chapters in the Bible (from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22) and draw connections backwards and forwards between all the cross-references. In the end, they produced an image with 63,779 connections throughout the entirety of the scriptures and, in God’s strange and wonderful way of doing things, the image came out looking like a rainbow.
The sign of the first rainbow in Genesis after the flood was and is a sign for us of the covenant God has made with God’s creation. And now, seeing another rainbow connecting scriptures, we are reminded of God’s promise to dwell among us, to redeem us, and to love us in spite of us.
The Bible is complex and diverse. It is not something to be consumed just like any other book from front to back. It is a mine that never stops producing incredible gems.
The Bible also contains just about every kind of literary genre from poetry to pose to genealogies to aphorisms and on and on. It can remind us of the same things over and over again or it can smack us in the head with a new insight for the very first time.
The Bible is alive and ever new even though the canon was finished a long time ago. That it is alive and ever new is indicative of the Spirit’s power to bring forth light on something previously shadowed.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
What do you all think?
There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.
The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.
So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?
The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?
Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?
Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.
Ahead of us.
What must we do to be saved?
It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy.
Do we have to be baptized?
Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship?
What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God?
How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?
That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.
And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.
Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.
I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.
“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.
God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.
Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.
But, what if that’s actually wrong?
And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.
Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.
Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.
But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.
Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?
That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?
Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.
Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.
No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people.
You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.
So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.
We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.
Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first.
We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.
We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.
The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side.
Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.
No one, that is, except for Jesus.
The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery.
But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.
Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.
And we can’t save ourselves.
God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.
Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.
If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection.
In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.
Hey, look, I’ll be the first to admit – the conditions… they’re not great.
At first I thought, maybe they were sending me to one of those white-collar crime prisons. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? They’re the prisoners where they send rich people who stole money from other rich people, where you get to go outside and play tennis a few times a week, have cable television in your cell, and see your family on the weekend.
But, yeah, that’s not the type of prison I’m in.
I thought they’d send me to a nicer joint than this one because I didn’t really do much to get sent here in the first place.
It’s true enough that I was warned in plenty of towns to keep the chatter below the radar. And, to some degree, I understood the concerns. But it’s not like I was setting up insurrections, or inciting violence, or destroying public property.
I was merely story-telling. It’s just that some people didn’t like the stories I was telling.
At the right time, God came in flesh to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Living, breathing, eating, sleeping, teaching, healing, all the good stuff.
And we hated it.
We hated the Good News because it ran counter to everything we’d been spoon-fed from birth. We thought we knew exactly what we would need to do, and then he shows up to tell us that he was doing it all for us, in spite of us.
Some of us responded by leaving it all behind to follow. Others, such as myself, became all the more zealous to stamp it out as quickly as possible.
But Jesus doesn’t quit.
He moved from town to town, giving people glimpses of a world they couldn’t even believe, and finally, when we’d grown tired of all his goodness, we decided to do something about it.
The whole, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’ got under our skin and we couldn’t let him remain – he threatened to disrupt all that we had grown so accustom to. So, we hung him up in a tree for all the world to see, and we killed him.
But, of course, this was to happen according to God’s strange workings in the world.
Because even though we killed God, God came back three days later, an empty tomb signified the flipping of the cosmos. And now we’re no longer in the world of our own design, but instead we’re living in the light and grace and mercy of God who destroyed death and canceled the power of sin.
God, believe it or not, set us free.
Anyway, they eventually caught me and locked me up for being a “threat to society.”
And, as I previously mentioned, though I was hoping for some nicer digs, I’m currently being held in a horrifying dismal cell. And, to make matters worse, they decided to chain me up to a new guard each and every day so I don’t “get any wild ideas.”
Maybe they heard about what happened to me when I got locked up before and the earthquake allowed me to escape…
Nevertheless, here I am. And, believe it or not, what has happened has actually served to advance the Gospel.
Now, I want to be clear: The fact that God brings good out of evil does not make evil good. The Lord works in mysterious ways, making evil to serve God’s purposes despite itself. In ways both small and large, in ways known and unknown, God has power over sin, evil, and death and is able to achieve God’s own purposes of grace and peace.
Think about it like the great reversal from Good Friday to Easter. That’s at the root of the whole Gospel story.
Jesus, hanging on a cross for the world to see, belittled and beaten and betrayed. There’s nothing good about crucifixion. And yet, God chose to use the sign of death to defeat death forever and ever.
Because that cross now stands empty to the sky, reminding those of us who follow the Lord that the tomb could not contain him, that he is still contending against the powers and principalities of this life, and that, in the end, love wins.
This is the way God works, contrary to how we might do it were we in charge of the whole operation.
The Lord dabbles in unexpected deliverances, in surprising turns of events, in providential happenstances. All of them are echoes of the great reversal that began that first Easter morning. They are foretaste of the world yet to come. They are the bread and the wine at the table, the undeserved invitation, the unmerited forgiveness.
They don’t always fit and fall when we want them to, but when God’s up to something, the best thing we can do is get out of the way and say “thanks.”
Consider my situation: Locked up for a minor offense, derided by some from the local community, and yet I still proclaim God’s grace and peace. Some might believe that my mission has stopped, or that no good can come from all this.
But whoever believes that has forgotten that God works in impossible possibilities – God makes a way where there is no way.
I want you to know that being here has actually helped spread the Good News, so much so that it has become known throughout the whole of the prison staff. And not only that, but my evangelism, that is sharing the Good News, in a place such as this has given others the boldness and the confidence to speak the Word wherever they may be.
Despite my chains, despite my present circumstances, the Gospel is spreading and I remain free as a slave to the Lord. My shackles have become yet another occasion for me to tell anyone with ears to hear about the differences between what the world does to us and what God has done for us.
I might be trapped in this place, but there is a joy in my heart – a joy that only comes from belonging to Jesus
Thanks be to God.
Now, as to how the Gospel has become known… Well, again, its partly a mystery.
I didn’t, contrary to what I’ve heard others do, frighten them with fire and brimstone. I didn’t tell them to shape up or ship out. I didn’t tell them that God will torture them forever and ever unless they confess Jesus as Lord.
There will always be those who proclaim Christ from different, and even wrong places. Some do so out of envy and rivalry while still yet other do so with the best intentions. There will come so-called evangelists who are only in it for themselves or their wallets and purses. And, finally, there will come some in the name of the Lord who want to make other believers suffer for their beliefs.
And in the end, what does it matter?
So long as Jesus is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, it makes little difference. In fact, if Jesus is proclaimed I will rejoice and I will continue to rejoice, because that’s the only thing that matters.
For what it’s worth: I happen to believe that the Good News should sound like Good News.
So, the other day, when a guard was complaining next to me about his own circumstances (not enough food for his family, fears about not measuring up to his family’s hopes and dreams, worry he will be punished by the gods for his infidelity), I told him the truth. No matter the condition of his condition, One has already come to take away the burdens of this life.
That, if his family is hungry, they might consider finding a local Ekklesia, that is, a gathering of those who follow Jesus, for they will give them food for nothing.
Or, if he is worried about his worth, the Lord sees him as he really is, the good and the bad together, and already decided he was worth the cost of the cross.
Or, if the thought of torment for lapses in morality are keeping him awake at night, he need only consider the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, already took and nailed the sins of the world to the cross and left them there forever.
But, I know other people in this line of work have other ideas about how to proclaim Jesus, and frankly some of them don’t like the way I do it at all.
If I may be so candid – There are tensions that exist within our community of faith, whether its in your city or in any of the others. Perhaps you already know how hard it is for a group of people called disciples to get along. If someone ever sets out to put a collection of the Scriptures together one day (What if they put these letters in? That would be kind of cool…) you’ll see how quickly people disagree about what it all really means.
I don’t want to make it seem as if everything is perfect all the time. And, if we don’t find a way to work together, some people in the future might get the bright idea to break up the church into denominations.
And even if all of that happens, if the church splinters, and arguments arise over the Word of God, all of that will still pale in comparison to what God has already done for you, me, and the world in the person of Jesus.
Nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, of course, do everything in our power to squirm and complain and set up stumbling blocks for ourselves and others, and we can make a hell of a mess in the process. But God is the one who both makes us and reconciles us. That means there is no way, literally, on earth or in hell, that we will ever be outside God’s graceful work in reconstituting the cosmos.
Or, to put it another way, if Jesus is truly proclaimed, what difference do our differences make?
There’s enough hardship and suffering in this world to argue over petty disagreements.
The Lord came to save the world, not beat it down into submission for perfect obedience.
The Lord died and rose again that we might have life, and life abundant, not anxiety about who’s the best teacher and best apostle.
The Lord turned the world upside down, the only thing we need to do is live in it.
So I rejoice, even behind these bars, and I will continue to rejoice! If I am delivered from this bondage, wonderful. But if not, I’ve already been freed from the greatest bondage of all – sin and death.
I thank you then for all your prayers and it is my eager hope and expectation that even through this Christ will be exalted now as always, whether I live or die.