Don’t Worry, God’s Got This

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7.9-17, John 10.22-30). Drew serves as one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including James Taylor, the paralysis of analysis, the best biblical name, terrific tunics, living parables, the great ordeal, Queer Eye, the theology of atheism, and the gospel as repetition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Worry, God’s Got This

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Scripture Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I have been leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our second class on Sunday, and having already unpacked all of the letters of the acronym LGBTQIA, we jumped into the Bible to examine all five times that homosexuality is referenced. 

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Considering the fact that many people in the room were shocked to discover how minor of a topic homosexuality is in the Bible, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find the passages in question (all from the NRSV) and some of my thoughts regarding exegesis and interpretation.

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding homosexuality and the Bible, but merely as a brief reflection. 

Homosexuality And The Bible

The Bible hardly ever discuss homosexual behavior. In terms of emphasis, it is a minor concern when compared with other moral or ethical concerns such as economic injustice, adultery, slavery, and divorce. There are only five direct references to homosexuality in the entirety of the Bible – two in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Though, specifically, the references are only found in Leviticus and in the Pauline corpus.

Leviticus 18.22

“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Interesting, the holiness code in Leviticus only prohibits male homosexual intercourse. This is not to say that females were not engaging in homosexual relationships, or weren’t being persecuted for homosexual relationships, its just not mentioned. The holiness code contains a great number of specific prohibitions though later we find the listed punishment for such behavior.

Leviticus 20.13

“If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Here we discover the punishment for male homosexual relations: death. However, this is not the only behavior that caries the weight of such a stiff penalty – Adultery, incest, and bestiality were also treated with the same and ultimate punishment. 

Regarding the two references in the Old Testament, quoting two verses from Leviticus does not necessarily settle the question for Christians today. There are a great number of laws, commandments, and expectations made of God’s people that were disregarded even by the first century in the Christian church. These include such things as circumcision and dietary practices. Some will make the case that the argument against homosexuality should be similarly abandoned because the are part of a purity rule and culture that is no longer morally relevant today. And that leads us to the New Testament…

1 Corinthians 6.9-10

“Do you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The two parts of significance, in NRSV English, are male prostitutes and sodomites. Which come from the Greek MALAKOI and ARSENOKOITAI respectively. Different translations offer additional interpretative moves, but for the de facto translation in the UMC, the New Revised Standard Version, MALAKOI (male prostitutes) is not a technical term that literally means homosexual. When it does appear in Greek writing from around the time 1 Corinthians was written, in was used as a slang term to refer to the passive partner, often young boys, in homosexual activity. Which raises the question about agency in terms of whether or not these types of relationship were willful, or if they were forced upon a young and therefore powerless boy. Or, to put it another way, there is certainly a question about whether it’s the homosexual behavior or the rape involved that Paul is drawing attention to. 

Interestingly, ARSENKOITAI (sodomite) is not found in any Greek text outside the Bible earlier than 1 Corinthians. Though there are some connections with the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) when homosexual behavior is mentioned in the previous passages from Leviticus. The English rendering of “sodomites” is particularly striking because it can refer to homosexual acts, but it also used to refer to oral sex which also takes place between heterosexuals.

1 Timothy 1.8-11

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and the sinful, for the unholy and the profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

ARSENKOITAI (sodomites) appears again in this list of prohibited vices that include everything from lying to slave trading to murder. Which, coming from Paul, is interesting considering the fact that he was murdering Christians prior to his Damascus road experience. Moreover, when compared with other items listed, Paul considers the act of lying to be equally bad with homosexual behavior which I have yet to hear ever mentioned during conversation in the UMC about the incompatibility of individual Christians. 

Romans 1.26-27

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

This is the only passage in the entirety of the Biblical witness that refers to lesbian sexual interactions and other that Leviticus is the passage most often cited when the debate about homosexuality is raised in the church. In Romans 1 Paul is not setting out to establish a new holiness code, or a new sexual ethic, nor is Paul warning the Christians in Rome about God’s judgment of those who engage in particular behaviors. Instead, Paul is assessing the disorder of humanity – at the root of Sin is a refusal to be grateful for God. 

Or, to put it differently, here and elsewhere in the Pauline letters, homosexual acts are no worse than other examples of whatever Paul might deem unrighteousness. It is to be regarded similarly with coveting, gossiping, or even disrespecting one’s parents.

In all of these references in scripture, they are almost always read in isolation and are used in a proof-texting manner; someone will lift the verse out of context and apply it in any way they see fit. This is no more striking that in Romans 1 which is often raised without reading into the first verse of chapter 2. It’s like Paul is pushing all the buttons to get everyone’s attention and then the real zinger comes with Romans 2.1 but we forget to read that far:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things!”

Therefore, for Paul, the self-righteous judgment against homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself.

There is no easy path forward for the United Methodist Church, but I believe Paul’s witness about our own self-righteousness is a cautionary word toward anyone who believe they know who is, or who is not, compatible with Christian teaching, whatever that means.

Or, to quote Jesus (who incidentally has nothing to say about homosexuality):

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”

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Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

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From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

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Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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The Fruit Of The Womb

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (Ruth 3.1-4, 4.13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44). Teer serves as an associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the cohosts for Crackers And Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent devotionals, Rated R scriptures, podophobia, neighborhood names, bringing God into the voting booth, the once-for-all-ness of the atonement, sacrificing Jesus one Sunday a month, and ignoring people in robes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Fruit of the Womb

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Teer Talking About Feet…

Getting Out Of The Way

Devotional:

Job 42.17

And Job died, full and old of days. 

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Eugene Peterson died yesterday.

Peterson was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. Throughout his life he wrote over thirty books, and served a church in Bel Air, Maryland for almost 30 years.

His name might not be familiar, but he leaves behind a legacy of bringing people closer to the Word through The Message. The Message is Peterson’s paraphrased version of the Bible for the modern vernacular. The story goes that in his early days of leading a church, he would “translate” passages in little bits as devotionals for the congregation, but as they became more and more popular, he eventually tackled the whole of scripture and had it published.

By 2015, The Message had sold more than 6 million copies.

To be clear: The Message is not a translation of the Bible, but is an interpretation of what it might sound like had the Bible been written today. There are of course problems with trying to adapt any piece of writing this way, but Peterson’s commitment to the paraphrase most definitely brought people to the church in a way that was exciting, refreshing, and life-giving.

I am grateful for Peterson’s work, and in particular The Message. I have used parts of his paraphrases throughout my ministry in order to bring people closer to the God that has come close to them. There is a comfort with hearing what God has said, as if God was saying it right now in a conversation.

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But Peterson’s contribution to the church extend far beyond The Message and his memoir (The Pastor), which was published in 2011, played a huge roll in my call to ministry. In fact, the passage below was so powerful, that I copied it in a notebook when I read it for the first time and have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since:

“What does it mean to be a church of Jesus Christ in America? We had let Luke’s storytelling in The Acts of the Apostles give us our text. We saturated our imaginations in the continuities between the conception, birth, and life of Jesus and the conception, birth, and life of the church. As we let Luke tell the story, it became clear that being the church meant that the Holy Spirit was conceiving the life of Jesus in us, much the same way the Holy Spirit had conceived the life of Jesus in Mary. We weren’t trying to be a perfect model or a glamorous church. We were trying to get out of the way and pay attention to the way God worked in the early church and was working in us. We were getting it: worship was not so much what we did, but what we let God do in and for us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. 171-172)

Like Job, Eugene Peterson lived a full life. The church is better for having had him in it and his legacy will last long after his death. His life was never so much about what he did with it, but what he let God do in and through him. 

We would be so blessed if someone said the same for us when we die. 

We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.