This Shall Be A Sign To You

Psalm 107.1

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.

How perfect.

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.

Basically, the Bible is awesome. 

Grace Is For Losers

Matthew 21.28-32

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.

The Only Thing That Matters

Philippians 1.12-20

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. 

Sincerely, Paul.

Amen. 

Yokes Over Easy

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 24.34-38, 42-29, 58-67, Psalm 45.10-17, Romans 7.15-25a, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the paradox of doing nothing, an arranged marriage, the scandal of particularity, allegory, Pauline honesty, the goodness of our badness, having fun with Jesus, and the strange burden of Christianity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Yokes Over Easy

The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 22.1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6.12-23, Matthew 10.40-42). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including canonical preaching, the Bible on a bumper sticker, sacrifices, foolish prayers, obedience to grace, singing the faith, baptismal protests, and memorable zingers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)

All!

Acts 2.1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Think and Let Think · All!

They were all together in one place.

A little more than a week had passed since they watched their Lord ascend to the right hand of the father. And whatever joy they had been feeling in the moment, the proverbial kick in the rear end from the angels asking about their eyes in the sky, apparently dried up. One would hope that the first disciples, having been commissioned by Jesus would actually be out there in the world doing the work they had been entrusted to do.

But instead they were all together in one place.

A violent wind came whipping through the room without warning, knocking over tables and cutlery, such that it filled the entire place where they were staying.

Divided tongues, like fire, appeared among them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

The early disciples tumbled out of the house, into the streets from which they were previously hiding and they made good on the new gift and started speaking to the people in their own native tongues.

They told them the Good News.

The crowds, meanwhile, were amazed and astonished by the miracle in their midst and all of wondered what it could possibly mean.

And yet others sneered and said, “They’re just drunk.”

The rest of the story goes that Peter takes that as his cue to preach, stands in the midst of the street, delivers the Word, and 3,000 were added to their number that day.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve preached from Acts 2 every Pentecost since I became a pastor, and even the best of my sermons haven’t come close to delivering thousands of new people to the church. 

For a while I wondered if it was because I wasn’t as good of a preacher as Peter. 

But, go read his sermon some time. 

It’s terrible. It’s boring. There’s no illustration. It doesn’t even end with an application.

So then I thought it was because the church wasn’t doing its job holding up the Acts 2 vision.

But, go look at what the church does.

Nothing. The only thing the people called church do is act like they’re drunk early in the morning.

The story of the arrival of the Spirit in Acts 2 is counter to just about everything we think about and do in the church today. It is disruptive, it is confounding, and it is for all.

Really.

If you tune out in the next few minutes, no worries. Just pick up a Bible and notice how many time the word “all” appears in this text.

It’s ridiculous.

Just like the Spirit.

pentecost-painting-7

I can give you plenty of reasons why the church shouldn’t exist. It’s filled with a bunch of sinners who are struggling with our inability to be good. We put up signs like, open hearts, minds, and doors when we actually close off our hearts, minds, and doors to anything we might deem “other.”

And, to be real, the church is a place where people get together week after week to sing songs, sit in silence, listen to someone preach, and then eat the body and blood of Jesus.

It’s shouldn’t exist. 

But people keep showing up. People keep streaming worship on their phones and computers. 

None of this can be explained without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. None of what happens here is intelligible unless the Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh.

And when the Spirit hits, it knocks us out of alignment from everything we think we’re supposed to do, say, and believe.

I’ve heard it said, in this church no less, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good.”

Which is fine. 

But, if that’s true, then why have we been worshipping at home for so long? Why do black men keep getting killed in this country for no reason other than the color of their skin? Why can’t we have God when we really need God? What good is the goodness if it’s not there when we need it?

It took me a long time to come to grips with this stark reality. And the Pentecost story is the one that helped me. You see, by the time the Holy Spirit showed up, the Israelites had been waiting centuries for a gift and Word from the Lord like they received on Pentecost. 

Earlier, Moses was told to save God’s people, to deliver them to the Promised Land, and he does, but he dies before he can get there himself.

Later, the prophet Isaiah spends three years wandering around naked as a sign and wonder against the Egyptians.

Even Lazarus was dead for three days before Jesus showed up and called him out of the tomb.

Which is all to say: God’s time is not our time. God’s ways are not our ways.

Long before the wind swept through the house and tongues of fire landed on the disciples, the people of God were long trained in being out of control and out of time. And even though they were trained in this practice of patience, it still drove them crazy. 

It still drives us crazy.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

Its why, rather than having difficult conversations this week about yet another black man’s murder, people like me are quick to post poetic reflections on the problems of racism.

Its why, rather than engaging in the long process of upending the inequality of this country, we offer our lament and move quickly on to whatever the next story might be.

It why, rather than calling into question the powers and principalities that so dominate and control our attention, we talk about the looting of stores rather than the destruction of bodies.

We want to be in control of all things, and make sure things happen according to our timetable, and that it all happens while requiring the least of us.

And yet, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live a life out of control. 

Faith, belief, trust, those are merely words for letting go of our presumption that fixing the world is up to us. Everything has already been done that needs doing. The end has already come to us in the person of Jesus through cross and resurrection. The powers and principalities have been vanquished forever. 

We just don’t act like it.

Or to put it another way, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do the work of the church whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.

What difference does it make if he wasn’t raised? Jesus is a good ethical teacher, he wants us to be kind to one another, spread a little more love in the world.

But that’s ridiculous!

Christianity has nothing to do with getting along with one another.

Christianity is a violent Spirit blowing wherever it wants, knocking us down or back in order to get done what the Spirit wants getting done.

We want God to be for us, which means, of course, that we want God to be against them, whoever the them might be.

But the Spirit doesn’t show up for us, or for them, the Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.

Contrary to all of our best intentions, and all our well meaning programs and practices, we continue to sin against the Spirit poured out on Pentecost because we continue to do whatever we can to explain away the disruption that is God.

And we all know why we do this – we’re afraid. 

We’re afraid of the Spirit that goes wherever it wants.

We’re afraid, though we think we have it all together, that we’re going to be grabbed up from our comfortable couches, shaken and thrown into confusion, and have even intoxicated like behavior.

Most of us, myself included, go to worship to have confirmed what we think we already know. That we’re right, and good, and fine, and they (whoever they are) are wrong. We don’t expect to be turned upside down.

But those early Christians, the ones accused of being drunk early in the morning, they were so accused because the Good News tasted like 200-proof grace that makes the room spin around with outrageous joy.

Here’s another way to think about it: When was the last time you left a church service, whether in-person or online, so joyful, so out of control, so confused, so filled with the brim with grace that someone said of you, “Look at those Christians again, drunk as skunks on a Sunday morning.”?

Usually, when we wrap things up on a Sunday morning, onlookers are more likely to say, “Look at those Christians, they look so smug, they look so bored, they look so dead.”

The Spirit refuses to let us die in our own self-righteous indignation.

The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, all so that we might begin to see the world and ourselves differently. 

Flannery O’Connor has a short story about a woman named Ruby Turpin. In it, Mrs. Turpin is a large Southern white woman who believes she is superior to just about everyone else, but particularly black folk. She spends her days looking down on those she deems unworthy, and the story picks up with her taking her husband to the doctor’s office for an appointment.

In the waiting room, she is disgusted to find people of lower classes, lower ambitions, filling up all the seats while she has to stand. She strikes up a conversation with a nearby mother who is there with her daughter and they bond over their disdain for certain individuals. They wax lyrical about the virtues of being hardworking, clean, and having a good disposition. And the more they talk the more the young daughter glares at Mrs. Turpin with hatred in her eyes over the cover of a book.

Eventually, the conversation moves closer to home as the mother complains that her daughter isn’t grateful enough for everything she’s been given. Mrs. Turpin, of course, agrees with the woman wholeheartedly, when all of the sudden the young daughter takes her book and throws it with all of her might straight at Mrs. Turpin’s face and hits her right above the eye. The girl further lunges toward Mrs. Turpin, grabs her around the throat, and has to be subdued and given a sedative by the doctor.

Right before the girl gives way to the medicine flowing in her veins, Mrs. Turpin demands an apology from her, and instead all the girl says is, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.

Needless to say, Mrs. Turpin is greatly disturbed by the comment, and can’t help herself from wondering if maybe it was a message from God. And the more she thinks on it, the more upset she becomes.

Eventually she returns home only to scold God in her prayers, demanding to know how she, the upstanding, polite, and perfect Christians she think she is, could possibly be an old wart hog. She even angrily lifts up her fists in the sky and shouts, “Who do you think you are?”

And its at that precise moment, with rage in her veins, she sees a vision. It’s a road from the earth to the sky, and on that road she and all the “proper” white Christians are at the back of the line. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs. Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or even God’s love.

Sometimes the Spirit shows up in a perfectly timed hymn, or just the right scripture reading, or even in the occasional sermon.

But most of the the time the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind, like flames of fire, or like a book being hurled across the room.

Because all of us, each and every single one of us is an old wart hog. We choose to do things we know we shouldn’t. We avoid doing things we know we should. And yet God still pours out the Spirit on all of us.

And all really means all. Amen. 

Gold Bond and The Gospel

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tripp Fuller about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 1.6-14, Psalm 68.1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4.12-14, 6.6-11, John 17.1-11). Tripp is the host of Home-brewed Christianity, and is a Religion/Science Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Our conversation covers a range of topics including homeschooling in quarantine, Process Theology, hide and seek, idiotic disciples, looking down and out, psalm problems, faithful suffering, tyrannical immediacy, thinking small, and the doneness of the Good News. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Gold Bond and The Gospel

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Less Is More

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1.3-9, John 20.19-31). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Eastertide, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the H-word, shorter sermons, tour bus preaching, other gods, bad church marquees, icky verses, the harrowing of Hell, DBH, and death breath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

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Mortal

Ezekiel 37.1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. 

In this strange new time I keep referring to as Coronatide, we have been physically separated by orders of law and state, but we are still bound to one another through the Lord. And yet, it has become apparent with every Facebook post calling on people to answer questions in order to learn more about one another that we really don’t know much about each other at all. 

Well, knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, I’m going to share something that you do know about me, no matter who you are, and something I know about you, no matter who you are.

We’re all going to die.

What a way to start a sermon!

Or, as it is written in one of my favorite books, “In the world according to Garp, we’re all terminal cases.”

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That’s what we were affirming on Ash Wednesday, which now feels like an eternity ago, and it’s what Lent reminds us at every turn: In the midst of life we are in death. And, frankly, we didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us. We didn’t need the empty supermarkets, and the abandoned jungle gyms, and the vacant school parking lots to remind us that no one makes it out of this life alive.

Though plenty of us love believing the contrary. We are suckers for the advertisements of products that promise youthful glows, and smoothed wrinkles, and tighter waistlines. We use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s void. We even check the updates on how fast the virus is spreading in certain places and think, “Well surely, it won’t happen like that to me.”

But then it does.

Or, to put it another way, a few weeks ago, before everything really ramped up, I took my 3 year old son out for lunch at a local Chic-fil-a. We ate our waffle fries in beatific silence, smiling as the ketchup smudged our cheeks, and then my boy gave me a look that said, “Dad. Bathroom time.” We quickly cleaned off our messy hands and faces, and bee-lined for the restrooms. After business was taken care of, a man walked in, used the stall next to us, and walked out. To which my son shouted, “Uh, Dad, that guy didn’t wash his hands.”

And I, being the great parent I am, said, “Elijah, say it louder next time.”

In ways both simple and profound, we like to pretend like the one universal truth is actually a lie.

But it’s not.

Ezekiel, contrary to our dispositions, knew the truth of our finitude. Should you have any extra time on your hands while social distancing, go read through the book of Ezekiel, there’s some wild stuff inside. But for today, we get to see, through Zeke’s eyes, the valley of the dry bones. 

It must’ve been a particularly striking and relevant image for the bizarre prophet considering his own life situation. Prior to this text, we learn that Ezekiel has been on somewhat of a rampage against God’s people, indicting them for all the had done and left undone. The people God chose to change the world, the people with whom God had covenanted, the people God loved with reckless abandon had abandoned the Lord – they had given themselves over to idolatry.

Idolatry, for the people in the back, is believing and acting as if anything or anyone can give us what only God can give.

Idolatry is believing wealth says more about who a person is than the fact they were made in the image of God.

Idolatry is looking out for our own interests at the expense of the marginalized.

Idolatry is assuming that we can save ourselves.

The people of God worshiped whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the ignored the plight of the needy, and they believed they were entirely in control of their destines.

And the Lord spoke into their midst and said, “You want idolatry? I’ll give you idolatry!”

They were dragged off as captives to become strangers in a strange land: Babylon. A foreign place where the land was dominated by colossal statues and overwhelming debauchery. In short: a place totally at odds with what the worship and love of God is supposed to look like.

And it’s from this place of exile, maybe something a few of us can identify with right now, that Ezekiel speaks of his vision.

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The Lord drags Ezekiel out to a graveyard, that stretches as far as the eye can see, and all his eyes can see are bones piled upon bones, and they’re all dry. And the Lord says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only you know.” And the Lord says, “Tell this to the bones: O dry bones the Lord will give you life! The Lord will breathe upon you and the sinews and the flesh will string together and you will live because God is God!”

Ezekiel does what the Lord commanded, and the earth trembles beneath his feet, and like a scene befitting a horror film, Ezekiel watches as bones come together, and tendons and muscles are stretched and skin forms until a vast multitude stands on their feet and they are alive.

“Look” says the Lord, “these bones are the whole of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But look what I did for them! I will bring you back and you shall know that I am the Lord!”

This is strange stuff, even for the Bible. 

The Lord promises to reconstitute the very people who had given up on the Lord.

God breathes life into the bones of those who destroyed life time and time again.

God makes a way where there was no way.

And the bones live.

Contrary to how so many of us speak about church or hear about church, this confounding moment in the valley of the dry bones has not one thing to do with us and whatever it is we think we bring to the table. 

Notice: The people of God have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. They died and were buried in their sins and in the trespasses and God says, “Ok, time to make something new.” 

They didn’t deserve it and they certainly didn’t earn it. 

Notice: God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to go out and give the bones a ten-step process on how to get their lives sorted out. God doesn’t tell the people to pray three times a day in order to earn their salvation. God doesn’t wait for the people to memorize their favorite book of the Bible before the bones starting coming back together.

God raises the bones to life because that’s what God does!

I hope you hear that as a hopeful word. Because even at our best, we’re not very good.

When we hear about the valley of the dry bones, if we hear about it at all, we are often so caught up with the striking physical details that we don’t take a moment to really think about it. We have the benefit, if you want to think about it that way, of knowing whose bones we’re walking on whenever we go through a cemetery. But Ezekiel could only see bones upon bones.

But who did they belong to?

Scripture answer the question for us, of course. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel?” But even a statement like that warrants further reflection. Because if the bones are the whole house of Israel, that means that some of those bones belong to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, the elect and the reject. It means that buried among that pile of bones are the good and the bad, the sinners and the saints, the first and the last.

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I don’t know what you all have been up to these last few weeks, but I’ve seen and heard countless stories about people going above and beyond to help people in need. Distilleries shutting down production of their whiskey in order to reformat their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Businesses donating medical masks to hospitals in need. Neighbors picking up groceries for the most vulnerable. Basically, stories of saints.

But for every positive story there’s plenty of stories that demonstrate the opposite.

Individuals hoarding up precious supplies and equipment only to price gouge individuals and business who really need them. Corporations calling on furloughed workers to start GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses rather than offering financial assistance. And countless politicians using our present crisis as an opportunity to shore up votes for the next election cycle.

And that’s not to mention the great number of pastors who have, foolishly, assured their respective congregations that they can keep worshipping together or going out in public because the Lord will protect them in all of their comings and goings.

Basically, stories of sinners.

In the end, we’re all just a bunch of dry bones sitting in the bottom of a valley. Even the best of us cannot prevent the bell that tolls for us with our perfect spirituality or magnificent morality. Even the worst of us cannot so take advantage of others to stop the inevitability of our own demise.  

Remember, in the time of Jesus, it was all of the so-called “good” institutions, both the religious and the secular, following all of the proper protocols, and calling for a vote, people like you and me joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. In all of our goodness and our badness we nailed that man to a cross and hung him up for the world to see. 

Stories end in graveyards. I’ve been in enough of them with the dirt in my hands laying it over the bodies of the dead to know it is true. I’ve seen enough tears spilt upon the tombstones of the familiar and the stranger to know that the one thing we all truly share is our death. I’ve listened to enough conversations and met with enough people to know that is our deaths that frighten us the most even if we do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.

The disciples knew it too. That’s why they abandoned the Lord the closer he got to death, it’s why they avoided him on the cross, and it’s why they only trudged up to his grave three days later.

And yet, one of the greatest messages of scripture, a message as plain as day in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is that in the end it’s not up to us to save ourselves. We will be buried among saints and sinners, our bones will dry and scatter, and only God, Father of the Incarnate Word, is the one who raises the dead. 

If you find yourself thinking, “My life is all dried up, I’m stuck in the confines of my home unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I have nothing to hope for, I feel completely cut off” then you are in good company. God can work with that. Amen. 

Comforted?

Devotional:

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

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I love and loathe the 23rd Psalm. I love it because it brings a sense of peace whenever I read it and I loathe it because it is, by far, the most overused psalm from the entirety of the Psalter. 

When I visit folk in the hospital and ask if they would like me to read some scripture, they invariably ask for Psalm 23. When I meet with families to prepare funeral services they request a read of Psalm 23. If you’re with a group of Christians and someone says, “The Lord is my…” there’s a better than good chance that the room will finish the sentence and keep on going to the very end.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it being the most popular psalm, but it does mean that we know it without really knowing it. 

When was the last time you thought about how the Lord prepares a table for you, in the presence of your enemies? For many that would strike a sense of fear, rather than comfort. Or, when was the last time you thought about dwelling in the house of the Lord your entire life? I know some of you love church, but to dwell in the house of the Lord for the rest of your life would have to mean that you really love church.

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But today, the bit that sticks out the most to me is the psalmist declaration that the rod and the staff of the Lord are a comfort. This sticks out to me because the rod and the staff are tools used by shepherds to keep their wandering sheep in check. 

Another way to encounter the verse would be like this: “Even though I’m going through some tough stuff, I’m not going to be afraid, because God is with me and knocking me around until this stuff really starts to sink in.”

These are uncertain times – the numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases in Virginia keep going up day after day, schools are closed for at least another 3 weeks, and local grocery stores are starting to shift around their operating hours to help mitigate the rate of exposure. 

And yet, strangely, the psalmist reminds us that, even though we are sequestered into our homes and are limiting our interactions with others, are not alone. God in Christ has come to dwell among us, to be present in our prayers, to be revealed in the reading of the Word, and even to rest in the silence with us that we otherwise try to avoid. 

Sometimes it takes a lifetime of Sundays before the Gospel message finally hits home. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us of our fragility in a world that keep foolishly promising us that we’re invincible. Sometimes it takes reading the most popular Psalm for the thousandth time before we can start to see the most beautiful aspect of it: the fact that its true.