Something To Say

Philippians 1.21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. 

It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early fall. Families made their way from the parking lot to the church, children wore matching outfits, and the sanctuary windows were open to let in the cool air.

The preacher paced in his office, looking over his notes for the sermon entitled, “A Love That Forgives.” He was momentarily grateful that the children’s choir would be singing that morning and, no matter how his preaching landed, most people would be pleased to hear the little ones’ voices. 

The Sunday school hour arrived and the adults went to their side of the building while the children went to their own. All in attendance that morning examined their Bibles, gleaned from God’s Holy Word, all while also sharing the local community gossip.

Shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, a group of girls were giggling in the basement restroom as they changed into their choir robes. 

And that’s when the bomb exploded.

It shook the entire building and it propelled the little girls’ bodies through the air like rag dolls. A passing motorist was blown out of his car, and every single stained glass window in the building was destroyed save for one which displayed Jesus leading a group of young children.

It was Sunday September 15th, 1963. 57 years ago this week. 

4 little girls from were declared dead on the scene. Another 20 people were injured by the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church would never be the same.

Martin Luther King Jr. would later describe the event as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So wrote Paul to the Philippians from his jail cell. This is one of the greatest declarations in all of Paul’s letters, and perhaps in the entirety of scripture. It cuts right to the heart of this thing we call faith – life and death are both centered wholly in Christ.

Whether we live or die we are with Christ. 

In baptism we are deadened like Christ that we might be raised with Christ. 

This, for Paul, is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and he has laid it all on the line in order to obtain it. He writes with such conviction, while a convict, because he knows Christ and him crucified. His life was turned upside down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and he now knows, deep in his bones while resting behind bars, that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. 

Paul, to put a finer point on it, has been assaulted by grace of God. A violent and merciful grace that knows no bounds.

When Paul writes of joy to the Philippian church, a community struggling under the weight of the world and opposition from the wider community, he does so because he has been confronted with a hope he didn’t deserve. He persecuted the early church, derided those who believed in a risen Messiah, and then was offered a position in the evangelism department!

He went from town to town and city to city sharing the Good News with people who had nothing but bad news. Which is why Paul writes of being comfortable with his fate whatever it may be. He knows he belongs to God whether he lives or dies. 

And, knowing he doesn’t know what will happen next, he encourages the Philippians to rest in the knowledge that he cares for them deeply, just as God does. That regardless of outcome, God has already overcome the world.

Which is what leads him to the line that, if we’re heard this part of Philippians before, we might know the best: Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.

This solitary sentence, taken out of context, has been used on a great number of occasions to malign Christians for not being good enough. Pastors like me have stood in places like this telling people like you that you’re not living in a manner worthy of the gospel so its about time you started turning things around. 

Stop sinning.

Start repenting.

Pray harder.

Do more.

All that stuff.

And yet, Paul’s proclamation about living in a manner worthy of the Gospel is so much more subtle than all of that. 

What we read in English as “manner of life” comes from the Greek word POLITEUESTHE (from which we get polis and politics) and it carries political overtones. While, on the surface, it might seem like Paul just wants the Christians in Philippi to behave themselves, he’s actually contrasting one form of citizenship with another. 

Throughout the rest of the letter he will continue to hold these two different identities against one another and remind the church that the citizenship of the Christian community is of a higher order than that of Roman citizenship. 

Faith and politics have never been easy to sort out and there’s always been disagreement about how they relate to one another. 

For the Philippians, it was of crucial importance because everywhere they turned they were bombarded by the power of Rome whether it was through festivals, statues, calendars, coins, temples, and all sorts of other cultural phenomena. 

Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know the empire seems powerful and that there’s no way you can get away from it. And, perhaps there’s some truth to that. But as disciples of Jesus, if there is a conflict between your politics and your faith, your loyalty is to Christ and your heavenly citizenship its what’s most important.”

The faithful in Philippi, though they live on earth, are citizens of heaven. As inhabitants of a Roman military colony on the outskirts of the empire, they would inevitably come to find themselves at odds with the powers and principalities of the surrounding politics. 

For us today, any talk of politics from the pulpit is enough to make us squirm with discomfort. We have been told, even from infancy, that the US was founded upon a separation of church and state which means, on a practical level, that some of us don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit.

Some of us get enough politics Monday thru Saturday that we want a little reprieve here on Sunday morning.

And yet, Paul implores the community of faith in Philippi, and therefore us today, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. To, as the Greek hints, live as if we believe our truest citizenship is with God and not country.

Do this, Paul says, so that whether I’m able to join you or not, I will hear that you remain firm in one spirit striving side by side for the sake of the Good News.

While the members of 16th Street Baptist church were preparing for worship 57 years ago, four white men drove over to the church and planted sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church in order to rain down murder and destruction. 

All four of the men were members of the United Klans of America, an offshoot of the KKK, an organization that swears to uphold Christian morality!

It was according to their Christian convictions that they felt compelled to bomb and murder other Christians because of the color of their skin.

3 days after the bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the funeral for the 4 girls who were murdered. In it he said their deaths have something to say to all of us. “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politicians who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Paul says, “Live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel.”

Hearing about the bombing of a church nearly 60 years ago can feel like the distant past. It can feel like we’ve moved on from that stained part of our history. 

But things have largely stayed the same.

The last few months of protests have been a ringing reminder that things haven’t changed. And its not just the matters that dominate the news cycle, the unjust murders of black individuals at the hands of the police. 

It’s so much more.

It’s in every fabric of our lives from the way pregnant black women die in childbirth at a far higher rate than white women, to black students being punished with higher severity than white students for making the same mistakes, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison.

And yet, even with all of that, a study was published this week by the Barna Group which found that 30% of Christians, that is people who have attended some form of worship in the last month and claim to strongly prioritize their faith, say they are NOT motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice.

Someone, that’s an increase from 2019 when 17% said they were unmotivated.

One might imagine that the last few months of racially motivated moments in this country might change Christians’ perspectives on racial injustice, but when you look at white Christians, the old patterns hold true.  

And all of that is further problematized by the fact that more than a third of practicing Christians in the study cited religious leaders, clergy, as the most influential among a list of the type of leaders they are listening to about racial justice.

Contrary to how we, that is those of us who are white, might want things to go, the black church has never had the luxury of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke politically and faithfully when he implored those in attendance at the funeral for the four young girls to see that there would be work to do.

There is still work to do.

Live you life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well. 

Suffering for Christ will always raise questions about where our ultimate allegiances reside. As the Lord says, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Jesus and racism at the same time. We cannot serve God and white supremacy at the same time. 

The life of faith is complicated. 

It’s not just about receiving a list of to-do items and then heading out into the world – It’s about catching glimpses of how God has already overcome the world and living accordingly.

It’s not about feeling guilty for all the things we could’ve done – it’s about seeing that living in the light of grace means we cannot remain as we were.

It’s not about keeping our politics and our beliefs separate – it’s about recognizing how what we believe shapes how we behave.

Part of the complication is that we can’t live in a manner worthy of the Gospel – we will always do things we know we shouldn’t and we will all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But we can at least begin by admitting the sin we’re stuck in, and then asking God to help us out. Amen. 

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. 

Grace Doesn’t Make Sense

Philippians 1.1-11

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God. 

There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.

The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community. 

At least, that’s the idea.

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.

Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.

However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.

Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.

Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes. 

To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.

Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence. 

The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”

The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.

And grace never stops coming. 

It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve. 

And we really don’t deserve it.

We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity. 

But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.

That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.

According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.

And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.

Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.

Is peace simply the absence of conflict?

Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?

For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for. 

Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.

The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).

God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.

Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country. 

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.

For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.

One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.

He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.

And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be. 

But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!

Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”

Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.

Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.

Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.

For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving. 

His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace. 

Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped. 

The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word. 

And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.

And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.

Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good. 

Jesus is our grace.

And that makes all the difference. Amen. 

Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

Love The Sinner

Matthew 7.1-5

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? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It’s sounds so Christian, doesn’t it? 

Surely, when Jesus was delivering his sermon on the mount, he summarized the whole thing with love the sinner, hate the sin.

Surely, if we Christians lived according to those six words, the world would be a better place.

Surely, loving sinners and hating sin is what the church is supposed to do!

And yet, it’s not in the Bible.

In my experience, when people, and by people I mean Christians, say, “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are almost always referring to the LGBTQIA community. For them, it’s a Christian way to say, “I love my Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual friend, but I hate that they’re Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual.”

In our post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is the means by which we can cover our real feelings all while appearing congenial toward those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

However, over the last few years, I’ve heard Christians use the expression within the realm of political disagreement. And, frankly, its been rather amazing to see how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about the LGBTQIA community has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country.

“Well, I know that dirty rotten scoundrel is going to vote for Trump again, but he’s my brother so I still love him” Or, “If Joe Biden is elected he’s going to absolutely ruin this country, but he’s a Christian so I’ve got to try and love him.”

So, whether it’s disagreements about who can get married or who can lead the church or who should be President, love the sinner, hate the sin has become our go-to expression. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but in actuality it’s rather difficult to hate another person’s sin alone, without harming the sinner.

Sin! Can you believe you’re listening to a preacher talk about sin? We don’t talk about it much anymore in mainline protestant circles. 

Pastors, like me, would rather talk about God’s loving nature, God’s unending forgiveness, God’s desire for mercy, instead of God’s judgment. 

We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors than to tell you to tell your neighbor that they’re sinners. 

We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking something fresh and new even today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about – sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, repent or burn forever.

That stuff.

We’re largely afraid of sin today. And not sin as a particular set of behavioral patterns, but because talk of it simply makes us uncomfortable. I’ve heard from countless people on countless occasions how they don’t want Sunday morning to feel like a drag on top of their already difficult lives, so preachers like me talk about the Gospel without ever mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who once taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin.

And, because it has been removed from the lexicon of church, we don’t really know what sin is anymore.

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically mean “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God and from one another. Sin can be a choice, or a lack of making a choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the chief thing about sin: We all do it. 

All of us.

From the preacher preaching right now to every person listening.

We are all sinners.

But, more importantly, we are all sinners for whom Christ died.

Love the sinner – of course we’re supposed to love the sinner – that’s what Jesus did. The problem with it is that Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

And the distinction is important. It is important because if we say, “we’re going to love sinners” we will automatically view others as sinners before being our neighbors. Which, even though its true, it tends to put us in a place of judgment where we are the righteous and they, whoever they are, are not.

Loving sinners is further problematized by the fact that we already often understand and label others by their mistakes and failures and sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, or even the frequency, we are very quick to call people cheaters, adulterers, liars, etc.

Or, to put it another way, instead of seeing our neighbors as neighbors, we tend to see them through the lens of their biggest mistake.

When I started at my first church I was pretty nervous. I was fresh out of seminary, with a head full of ideas, and no real understanding of what I had gotten myself into.

Nevertheless, I found myself unpacking all my big and important theology books in my first office, all while day dreaming about what to say in my first sermon, when I opened the top drawer of the desk and found a sealed envelope with the words, “For The New Preacher” on it.

Up to that point I had not had a single conversation with the pastor I was following – the pastor had recently retired and moved away and I was therefore entering the church without any knowledge of the church.

But there was this envelope, in the desk, for me, and it was clearly left by the last pastor.

So, eager to glean anything that I could, I tore it open.

Inside I found a solitary piece of paper with the words, “DO NOT TRUST.”

Underneath which were five names of individuals from the congregation.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard I tried to forget the note, no matter how hard I tried to embrace the particular individuals in spite of what I read, my entire perspective had been upended by those three words: “DO NOT TRUST.”

The same thing happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. 

And yet, of course, Christians are called to love sinners. 

Because, in the end, that exactly what Christ does for all of us.

All of us would do well to remember that we’re in the same boat with everyone else. Which is to say, sinners are who we are. The best of us and the worst of us, we’re all sinners. The challenge with that recognition is that we are almost all better at recognizing the sins in others far before we can recognize them in ourselves.

Which brings us to the second part of the statement in question today. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

We’re mighty good at seeing and pointing out the sins in others. That’s what Facebook and Twitter are all about! There’s just something so enjoyable when we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

To bring it back to politics for a moment: We’ve seen the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the last two weeks with leaders from both parties speaking publicly about who should be elected (or re-elected) come November. And, without getting into specifics, both parties spent the majority of their conventions not talking about themselves and what they want to accomplish, but what’s wrong with the other party and how if those other people over there are elected (or re-elected) it will ruin everything. 

Judgement, contrary to the commands against it by Jesus, is our cup of tea.

And whenever we “hate the sin” we jump straight up onto pedestals of our own creation to look down about the weak.

Jesus himself spent his whole ministry with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. You know, people like us.

Jesus routinely chose to gather with the likes of the worst to break bread, to offer healing, and, perhaps most importantly, to offer them most precious gift of all: his time.

And he said to all those sinners, “Follow me.”

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Instead, when Jesus encountered the utter depravity of those in his midst, he offered them, strangely enough, forgiveness.

But we are not like Jesus. We regularly fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We see the world in all of its wrongness and we believe, deep in our bones, that the problems of the world can be blamed entirely on other people.

Even preachers, preachers like me, fall into this trap. Just take a gander at some of the sermons online throughout this pandemic, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find me, standing right here wearing a slightly different outfit, calling out the mistakes of others. I mean, this whole sermon series “That’s NOT In The Bible” is about calling to question the Christian types who use these non-biblical expressions which, at the end of the day, is remarkably judgmental!

And yet, the irony notwithstanding, saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us purveyors of judgment. It gives us the space to ridicule and belittle those with whom we disagree all while maintain some semblance of a Christian disposition. But whenever we fall back to that frame-of-reference, whenever we use it as the means by which we can justify our judgements, we fail to recognize the logs in our own eyes.

Should we pretend then that sin doesn’t exist and that we can continue merrily doing whatever we want whenever we want?

Or course not.

There is sin in the world, plenty of it. But before we go out pointing at all those sins, we all do well to look in the mirror.

Because all of us make bad choices. We all avoid doing things we know we should do. We all flock together for like-minded judgments against others. And we all keep dropping vaguely Christian expressions that aren’t in the Bible.

But, in the end, Jesus looks right at us, right into the depths of our being, and says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

And that’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we don’t deserve it.

Just look at the parables; more often than not they end with someone throwing out the ledger book, or offering forgiveness before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Just look at Jesus life; pronouncing forgiveness from the cross, or reconciling with the abandoning and disciples in the upper room, or choosing the murderous Paul to be the chief evangelist of the first century.

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and even the ones we’re proud of), God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees all of our self-righteous indignation, and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God has read all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, God knows our internet search histories and still stays, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God is there with us in the comments section of Facebook, God hears the sighs we offer in response to those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, God knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

We say it, we read it, we might even live by it (or think we live by it), but it creates more problems than it solves. Sure, loving sinners is what we’re supposed to do, but it often results in us lording it over those we deem sinners, which doesn’t sound a whole lot like love to begin with.

Loving sinners is the aim of the church, but most of the time we fail. We’ve simply got logs too big in our eyes to do much of anything.

Thanks be to God, then, for Jesus Christ who loves us and forgives us in spite of those logs. Amen. 

God Said It

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

We, the church, have been breaking one of God’s laws, and it’s high time for us to atone for our sin. Frankly, I can’t believe we’ve been so brazen to keep wantonly going on like this, but I guess we’ve been drunk on our own self-righteousness to do much of anything about it.

So, today, I’m going to get us all squared away so that we can get back on God’s good side.

We need to destroy the church bathrooms.

It’s as clear as day in scripture and if God says it, then it’s settled.

Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “What’s Taylor on talking about church bathrooms at a time like this? We haven’t even used the church bathrooms for 5 months?” While some of you are wondering, “What Bible has he been reading?”

Deuteronomy 23.12-14, a paraphrase – “You shall have an area outside the camp for you to take care of your bathroom business. Make sure you bring a shovel with you, and when you relieve yourself outside, cover up your excrement. God is with you, to save you from your enemies, therefore your place of worship must be holy, so that God may not see anything indecent among you.”

Look it up sometime.

So, after prayerful consideration, whenever we do reopen for in-person worship, we will no longer have bathrooms in the church buildings. We will, however, endeavor to construct some outhouses on the edge of our property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

Have you ever read that passage from the Bible? Have you ever heard someone preach on it? Chances are, you haven’t. But in the 1880’s, here in the US, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of theological debate. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

Seriously.

For some, the Old Testament rules about the Israelite encampments were just as valid for churches as they were for God’s wandering people. Therefore, some preachers stood up in their pulpits nearly over 100 years ago to fight against the growing trend of bathrooms in churches!

Today, of course, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t about what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design would enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit inside the building, but how many bathrooms should there be and where should they be situated.

God said it, I believe it, that settles it! 

It’s a common refrain among Christian types though it can appear in different ways. “The Bible is clear about this…” is another similar expression, as is “We’ve got to follow the Bible.”

Years ago, in a Bible study, we were going through the appointed text for the day when a woman interrupted the conversation with a personal dilemma. She told us that her son recently came home with a tattoo on his arm and she was completely devastated. And I, being the young and naive clergy that I was (and still am) said something like, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a tattoo.”

To which she replied, “If God says it’s not allowed in the Bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there and moved the conversation to another place, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Oh, so you don’t eat pork or shrimp or cheeseburgers? And you’re telling us about your son so that we can join you in stoning him to death this afternoon for disrespecting your wishes? And, you didn’t mean to wear those earrings today because you know the Bible forbids them as well? And, for that matter that polyester jacket you wore in today is also off limits, as is your husband’s clean shaven face!

I repent, O Lord, for my unChristian Bible Study behavior. 

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is wildly problematic, and basically impossible. If we strive to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be able to wear blended fabrics, sow two different kinds of seed in one garden, children who curse their parents would be put to death, and if you mowed your lawn on Sunday afternoon you would be put to death as well. 

God said it, I believe it, that settles it. 

It’s another one of those trite and cliche Christianisms that often float around in our conversations. When we get into debates and arguments with others about particular biblical concepts, like prohibitions against tattoos, watching movies about wizards, or any other number of things, someone is likely to take a verse out of content and use it like a bludgeon against the person they disagree with.

Because, you know, if God said it then it’s settled.

Right? 

Or maybe there’s more to the Bible than the way we’ve been treating it.

Today, as I already noted, no one is worrying about whether or not to build a church with a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belittle the men in their congregations for trimming their beards, and we all neglect to adhere to certain passages all the while holding other passages over the heads of others.

The Bible is full of all sorts of rules and regulations that we pick and choose according to our own proclivities.

Our passage today comes from Paul first letter to the church in Corinth and he drops a line on the dozing Corinthians that makes (some of) us cringe today: “Women should be silent in churches.”

This, of course, is a line we willfully ignore/disobey regularly. Back in the days when we still gathered in-person for worship (remember?) we regularly had female liturgists who stood to read God’s Word for all of us, we’ve had at least 3 guest preachers in the last 3 years all of whom were women, and that’s to say nothing of the many times we’ve had women lead us in congregational singing.

However, there are churches who believe the language regarding the supposed subordination of women is the Gospel truth. In those churches, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible studies when men are present, and they are not allowed to do anything that would ever require them to speak in front of the gathered congregation.

Which, to be honest, is rather strange – even from a biblical standpoint. Paul certainly offers his opinion here in 1 Corinthians, and he does so in other letters as well, but the New Testament is filled with other examples that completely contradict Paul’s words. Women are noted as prophets, evangelists, and apostles, Paul even refers to Euodia and Syntyche as coworkers who struggled together with him in the ministry of the Gospel, and Aquila taught the ways of God among the earliest Christians.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that without female preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Contrary to the verse in question from Paul today, the Gospel (Good News in a world drowning in bad news) radically altered the position of women, elevating them to a partnership with men that was unparalleled in the first century. 

And yet, the church, as a whole, has been remarkably slow in embracing the New Testament’s vision of mutuality among people regardless of any distinctions. Even within the New Testament, there is a vacillation between a vision of things not yet seen and a keeping things the way they are.

And its that dance, it’s the movement back and forth, that really stands at the center of the statement, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Like the many apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking to us even today. But we aren’t just passive recipients of what it says, lifting it up like a weapon to be used against others. We ask questions of it. We pray for the wisdom and guidance to discern how it shapes our lives. We wrestle with the text and then, in community, we do the hard and important work of interpretation. 

Paul might have something to say about women being silent in church, but many of us would simply not be Christians unless women were brave enough to stand and speak in churches.

The Bible might have more than 200 verses in support of slavery, but we recognize that slavery is incompatible with God’s kingdom here on earth.

We might read about doing our business outside the boundary of God’s holiness, but we don’t build churches without bathrooms.

The best way to do the work of interpretation is to be the disciples Jesus has called us to be – in short, we follow Jesus’ example.

Contrary to how we might imagine the Lord in scripture, Jesus did not adhere to the strict biblical literalism that is still found in some churches today. He had wildly different ideas and interpretations of Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly violated the Law of the Old Testament by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian today is all about developing a lens by which we can encounter the strange new world of the Bible and proclaim it for this time and this place.

Even the Bibles to which we turn are themselves works of interpretation. 

Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from the Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but the words we use can make all the difference. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s how the New Revised Standard Version renders John 3.16 – easily one of the most well known verses in all of scriptures. But what many of us do not know is that the word for “perish” in Greek is APOLLUMI and it can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, to be killed, or to be ruined. 

Each of those different words can change the meaning of the text in ways both small and large and they are a product of interpretation.

Therefore whenever we take up a Bible, whenever we flip to a particular passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the words. And to make it all the more challenging, even the best translations leave us to continue the work of interpretation.

So, how do we do it?

Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our Bibles all by ourselves and decide we know exactly what God is saying, we don’t listed to a sermon and decide that the end all be all on the subject.

We interpret God’s Word in community. 

We read from commentaries on scripture from those who came before us, we engage in Bible studies where iron sharpens iron and we come to know more than we would on our own, we send emails to our friends and pastor with questions so that we can come closer to the strange new world of the Bible.

And, we let Jesus help us interpret. 

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As God’s definitive Word, Jesus helps us understand the words within the Word. We read from both the Old and New Testaments through the lends of Christ and we can then do the good and sometimes hard work of wrestling with how these words continue to speak into our lives.

But that requires a whole lot more than, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” 

For, those who say “The Bible is clear” are those who have never really read the Bible. Reading scripture, the work of interpretation, is hard work. It calls us to become servants of the Word rather than masters of the text. And, frustratingly enough, that work never ends.

People have used God’s Holy Word with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery and racism. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward those who believe differently. 

It has been used as a weapon over and over again.

So today, we, the people of God, who come to the text with fear and trembling witnessing to the fact that it gives life, we repent for the ways we have used it to take life away.

And with the courage of the Spirit we join together to say, “no more!”

“No more!” To the use of Scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized.

“No more!” To the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for being exactly who they are.

“No more!” To the backward ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” To God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. 

I love the strange new world of the Bible. I fell in love with it as a kid sitting between my parents in the pews on Sunday mornings, I still fall in love with it every time I take it up and read. And I think what I love most about it is the fact that it is alive. It is not some dead book that demands to be kept in the past. 

It is alive, and it gives life. Amen. 

God Won’t

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Doomscrolling.

Have you heard of it?

It’s falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with negative content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. 

Basically, instead of retreating to the binge-worthy content of Netflix many of us are actually binge-watching the world flush down the drain.

We can’t unplug or disconnect ourselves from the headlines – COVID cases spiking across the country, a horrific blast rocking Beirut, social unrest resulting in broken buildings and broken people.

And, like slowing down on the interstate past a wreck, we can help ourselves from staring.

We’ve become addicted to the world of bad news so much so that a new word was created to help explain it – doomscrolling.

And it’s not just what we’re doing on social media – it’s how we’re having our conversations with friends, family, and even neighbors.

Did you see the latest numbers for the virus?

Can you believe he went golfing again during all of this?

What kind of idiot posts a video of a Corvette while preparing to run for president?

So it goes.

And, I must confess dear online worshippers, even I am not immune to the bizarre charms of doomscrolling. I find myself, at times, scrolling through the likes of Twitter and Facebook only to discover more and more bad news. 

Last weekend the city of Staunton, on the other side of Virginia, experienced heavy rains in a very short period of time that resulted in horrific flooding. Restaurants, businesses, homes all filled with water that destroyed everything.

The videos and the pictures have been devastating. And they felt all the more pressing for me personally because Staunton is where I was first appointed before coming here. The restaurants and businesses were those that I frequented, and now they’re all navigating through a completely unknown future.

So I was scrolling through the videos and images, reading the comments from various community members offering support, and then I noticed a comment that seemed to keep cropping up on every different post. No matter how bad or grim the situation appeared, someone felt the need to write, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It is my sincere hope and prayer that, in the midst of a moment of pain or fear or grief, no one has ever dismissively said to you, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

But chances are, someone has.

It is near the top of the list of Christian expressions used when we don’t know what else to say and, spoiler warning, it’s NOT in the Bible.

Sure, there are plenty of verses about how God will see us through to the other side, about how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and so on. But the specificity of claiming that God won’t give us more than we can handle implies a whole lot about God that it absolutely shouldn’t.

To begin with, “God won’t give you…” immediately sets up a theological understanding that God, you know the author of salvation, gives every single little thing to us, on purpose; the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the love and the pain.

Which means, according to the expression, God sows our suffering.

As has been said from this place on a number of occasions, if God delights in our suffering, if God purposely sends bad things to happen to us in order to punish us or teach us a lesson or make us stronger, then God isn’t worthy of our worship. 

God, absolutely, rejoices with us when we rejoice and God, absolutely, weeps with us when we weep, but that’s not the same thing as God authoring and willing every little thing that happens to us.

God is not some sadist who rejoices in our tribulations.

God is not an architect of divine destruction.

God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what difficult things he should send for us to handle.

Let me put it this way: Can you imagine reaching out to a neighbor whose house just burned to the ground only to pithily remark, “God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

Maybe you can imagine it, maybe you’ve even said it to someone before. And, chances are, dear listeners, you’re pretty decent people, and if you ever said something like that you were only doing so because you wanted to cheer up the person suffering, or you wanted them to believe they could make it through, or you believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

And we should try to comfort those in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and grief. 

We should help in ways both seen and unseen.

But the more we say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” the more we make God into monster and the more we place the burdens of the world entirely on one person’s shoulder.

Jesus has been doing his Jesus thing for a little bit. Been baptized by his cousin in the river Jordan, called some of the first disciples, and word has started to spread about this Messiah man.

Did you hear the he healed Peter’s mother-in-law?

What kind of Kingdom is he talking about all the time?

And have you seen his followers – what kind of Messiah enlists fishermen?

Jesus moves from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, preaching about a new age and healing the sick all while seeking the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But Jesus needs some rest, so he returns to Capernaum for a spell.

He’s sitting in the house, kicking up his feet, when the whole town shows up at the door looking for a word, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they’ve longed for, yearning for someone to make something of their nothing.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, some friends are milling about, loitering their afternoon away, when word of the Messiah reaches their ears.

And, without taking much time to discuss their plan, they drop everything and run to their friend’s house. They find him like they always do, laying on a mat in the corner of the room, wasting away without the use of his legs.

He can’t even put up a word of protest before the friends are dragging him out of the house because, surely, if anyone can do something about the condition of his condition, Jesus can.

They carry him through the streets on a blanket, knocking people from side to side, but as they arrive in front of the house the crowds are so thick they can’t get any closer.

Ah, but these are no ordinary friends and this is no ordinary day – they take matters into their own hands.

They lift the paralyzed man up onto the closest rooftop, and they cross from house to house until they reach their destination. They dig a hole straight through the roof, and they lower their friend to the Lord.

Jesus, now interrupted from his sermon, looks up to see the spectacle above his head and smiles saying, “Good job! I’m impressed!” 

And then he looks straight into the eyes of the paralytic, having witnessed the faith of his friends, and says, “You are forgiven.”

The strange new world of the Bible is indeed strange.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t berate them for destroying property in the midst of the reckless hope for healing and transformation. Jesus doesn’t wax lyrical about what is and isn’t possible in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t interrogate the paralyzed man about his past and every choice he ever made.

Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness.

The rest of the story includes a rebuttal from the scribes accusing Jesus of blasphemy to which he memorably replied, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? Well, to show you that I really mean business I’m going to say both. Hey formerly paralyzed man! Get outta here and go celebrate with your friends.”

It’s wild stuff.

Jesus delights not only in forgiving the man of his sins (what sins?) but he also restores him to wholeness. 

And why does Jesus do this? Well, Jesus can do whatever Jesus wants, but scripture also dangles out this little thread of the faithfulness of the man’s friends. 

Friends who, in the end, have such a profound hope in what Jesus can do they carry their friend, literally dig through a roof, just so something remarkable might happen.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think about pallbearers when I read this story – those who carry the dead into and out of the church.

I also can’t help myself from considering the many who have carried me during times when I needed it most. Friends, family, and even strangers who, when encountering the condition of my condition, said, “Okay, it’s our turn to carry you for a bit.”

Because whether it’s a friend in need, or a body being put into the ground, when we can’t handle what’s happening in our lives, we need others who can carry us, and who can carry us to Jesus.

Life tends to come at us pretty fast. These days all the more. We might’ve been fed the lie since birth that “we’re in control of our destinies” but a pandemic and economic instability is quick to remind us of the truth – all of us will face things that are more than we can handle, on our own.

So here’s a potential corrective to the statement in question today: It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But when life give you more than you can handle, God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

This acknowledges that tribulations and hardships will occur and that when we go through the muck and mire of life, God will be there in the midst of it with us.

And when those time comes, because they will, it is good and right for us to admit, “You know, I can’t do this by myself – I need help.” There simply are times when we need a doctor, or a financial expert, or a pastor, or a therapist to help us through to the other die.

God does not give us what we can or can’t handle – but God does give us Jesus so that we can handle what life gives us. 

There was a woman who, back in the 90’s, was struggling with a horrible drug addiction and was trying her best to kick the habit all while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. The new mother was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing that every day she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, or that her child would be taken away, or (most frighteningly) maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her. 

So one night, around 2 am, she was lying in the fetal position on the floor desperately trying to will herself into turning her life around. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that he mother had sent in the mail 4 years earlier, back when they were still talking.

The new mother didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, but she knew she couldn’t do it on her own so she grabbed the phone and dialed the number.

A man answered, and the woman blurted out, “I got this number from my mom, do you think maybe you could talk to me?”

She heard some shuffling around on the other line and then the man said, “Uh, yeah. What’s going on?”

She realized right then that she hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even herself, and without thinking much about it she said, “I’m not in a good place and I’m scared.” And she kept going, she told the man about her drug problem, and that she was worried about her baby, and on and on and on.

And the man, well, he listened.

He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

They phone call lasted until the sun started to creep through the blinds and the woman, noticing how long she had been on the phone, said, “Thank you for staying with me, and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verses I should read or something?”

The man laughed, brushed her comment aside, and she interrupted by saying, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you to not hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him nonetheless and they talked until the conversation came to its natural conclusion. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know was possible. She said she discovered, for the first time, that there is love out in the world, some of it being unconditional, and some of it was meant for her.

After that, everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.

When she tell her story she always ends it with this: “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come right in.”

Today we live in a world under the shadow of fear. Between civil unrest, an infectious pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’re all looking to put our hope somewhere. The world puts its hope in human strategies – the belief in progressivism is very tempting! But as Christians, we know that human strategies rarely, if ever, work.

But God is full of impossible possibility. God can make new what no one else can. God can make a way where there is no way.

In the end, that’s what God’s all about. God helps us handle what life gives us through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes it’s through a wrong number.

Sometimes it’s through a group of friends willing to dig through a roof.

God won’t abandon us to our own device. God won’t leave us alone. God won’t let life get the better of us. 

Because when life give us more than we handle, God will help us handle all that we’ve been given. Amen. 

What Is Our Why?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 45.1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.10-28). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Augustine’s Confessions, the cost of reconciliation, Last Week Tonight, the oddity of unity, oily abundance, the irrevocability of the Gospel, cancel culture in the church, preaching in prison, and identifying with the right characters. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Is Our Why?

God Helps

Psalm 121

I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber not sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when all of the sudden the ground fell out beneath her and she fell into a giant sinkhole. After she brushed herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep to climb out by herself so she began crying out for help.

A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the woman yelled up, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”

The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole and kept walking.

Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted up, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!” 

The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge and the woman in the pit shouted, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”

To which the older lady replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.

Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here,” she shouted, “Can you please get me out of here?” And the friend jumped straight down into the pit. The woman said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!”

And that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” 

A few years ago the results of a national poll were published and it was discovered that more than 8 out of every 10 Americans think, “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is in the Bible. Even more troubling is the fact that more than half of the people who were part of the poll were strongly convinced that is is one of the core messages of scripture!

And it’s not in the Bible!

The expression itself is thought to be traced back to Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1736.

And yet a super majority of Americans (even American Christians) believe it’s straight from the lips of Jesus!

Now, of course, there is a small smidgen of truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around at our dinner tables praying for manna from heaven, we’re probably going to be left empty handed. However, we can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and the means by which we can procure food for our tables whether its gardens in our yard or employment in order to purchase food.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening and responding to our spouses, nurturing our children, all of these things result in the betterment of our lives because we have worked for them to be better.

However, all of that pales in comparison to how “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligations to help others.

The expression in question has far more to do with capitalism than it does with Christianity. In fact, it’s rather antithetical to the message of scripture as a whole for God is the God of deliverance for a people undeserving.

People like us.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves.

Period. Full stop.

Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, natural disasters, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves.

Some people, in fact most people, are in holes so deep with walls so steep, that there’s no way they’ll ever climb out without help.

Food scarcity is a major problem in our area here in Woodbridge. As long as I’ve been the pastor here we’ve participated in a food distribution program once a month where huge crowds of people show up just to receive food. They will often stand in line in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter for hours at times just for a chance to bring home a grocery store bag’s worth of food.

Our local elementary school, right across the street, has a majority of students who, when schools are actually open, have free or reduced price lunches. And for many of those students its the only reliable food source they have in any given week.

And I lost track a long time ago how many people have stopped by our doors on any given day asking simply for food. Not for money, not for gas, not for anything else but food.

Now, can you imagine what it would be like if, every time someone asked the church for food we responded with, “Um, don’t you know you’re supposed to work on yourself before God will do something for you? How about you come back next week with at least three examples of how you’ve turned your life around before we give you some food? Ok bye!”

And, just for the sake of clarity, food really is everything. A few years ago a national study was published in which countless researchers looked into what were the best things to do in order to increase the education of students across the country. They looked at smaller class sizes, access to newer textbooks, different educational models, and on and on and on. And do you know what they found to be the best indication of increasing education?

Food.

In the end, they discovered, it doesn’t matter whether students have computers, or better textbooks, or smaller class sizes. If they don’t have access to food, none of those things make a difference.

The Church, and I mean the whole big “C” church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to care for the other with the use of yet another trite and cliche non-biblical sentence because God, more often than not, actually commands the people called church to specifically do for the last, least, lost, and little what they can’t for themselves.

Just pick up a Bible sometime, scan through any number of prominent stories from both the Old and New Testaments – it will become quickly clear how the actual biblical truth is that God helps those who CAN’T help themselves.

Leviticus 23.22 – God says, ‘When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think these fields belong to you, but they actually belong to me. So quit hoarding up all your food because there are others who need it more than you. My kingdom is bigger than your field.”

Hosea 6:6 – The prophet writes on behalf of God, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think you’ve got this whole worship thing figured out. That, as long as you do enough good things for your faith, you’re covered. But do you know what I love more than all your singing and all your praising? When you actually put your faith into action and care for the people I care for most.”

James 1.27 – James implores the early church that, “true devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulty.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, remember how I delivered you out of slavery in Egypt, remember how I delivered you out of the bondage to sin and death in Jesus Christ? The kingdom is all about delivering people from a worldly reality into a kingdom reality. The kingdom is all about doing things for people who can’t do them on their own. Get it?”

I could go on and on.

And, you what? I think I will…

Consider Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. He’s been out teaching and preaching and healing all day in the heat of the sun, and as the day comes to a close the disciples realize that these people need something to eat so maybe it would be better for them to return home.

And what does Jesus say?

“Hey, listen up, uh you all need to start pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps. There are no handouts in the kingdom of God. Thanks for coming out today. Bye.”

Or: “Look, I know you’re hungry, but if I give you fish to eat it will only help you for today. So instead we’re going down to the water and I’m going to teach you how to fish for yourselves.”

No.

Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

And when they can only rustle up a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, Jesus miraculously makes it into a meal for 5,000, with leftovers.

Jesus did for the crowds that day what the disciples and the crowds themselves could no do on their own.

Again and again in the New Testament Jesus connects with the brokenness within every community and brings healing.

He sends the abandoned and forgotten back to the villages that disowned them.

He feeds and heals and teaches out of the abundant mercy of God.

Jesus helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your life right now, I can’t even see you to know, on your faces, whether this is sinking in at all. 

But maybe, just maybe, you feel like you’re down in a pit – life just won’t let up and you feel overwhelmed and suffocated by worry, fear, and anxiety.

Or perhaps you’ve lost someone you love and every single day is a biting and ringing reminder that you will never get them back.

Or maybe you’re struggling with an addiction that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t kick it.

We can claw at the walls all we want. We can fashion ladders of self-improvement. We can even make promises to ourselves that tomorrow we will finally become the best versions of ourselves.

But sometimes, the only way out of the hole comes when someone else is willing to jump in and show us the way out.

The psalmist puts it this way: “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we discover, bewilderingly enough, that our help comes from God.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the friend who recklessly jumps into the depths of our despair, who never abandons us even we go off assuming we can do it all on our own (thank you very much), who humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to be born into this broken world of ours.

That’s who comes to help us.

And that’s the whole point.

God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so too we do the same because that’s exactly what God did, and does, for us.

God was born into the world as a fragile child into the deepest pit of fear and terror for a couple all alone in the world.

God went to the margins of society in Christ Jesus sinking lower and lower just to be with the abandoned, neglected, and forgotten.

God chose the broken and the battered to dwell among in order that, in the end, they would be delivered from the miserable estate.

God even went the depth of death just to bring each and every one of us to the other side of salvation. 

And God did and does all of this without cost. 

The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – We cannot help ourselves into grace.

Grace is something done for us and to us.

It jumps into the hole right next to us, and it shows us the way out. Amen.

The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Coronatide, NOVA, the case for Karl Barth, narrative theology, dreamers of dreams, church leadership as evangelism, different righteousnesses, exegetical grammar, and God’s oddness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian