Mercy Precedes Judgment

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the Trinity Sunday – Year B (Isaiah 6.1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8.12-17, John 3.1-17). Mikang serves as the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Licensing School, Jacob’s ladder, instagram, strangers in a strange land, visitation as proclamation, the keys of heaven, the chaos of God, and the intimacy of the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy Precedes Judgment

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The Future Present

Romans 8.22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

All of creation groans.

            How can we put those words into images?

On Monday 60 Palestinians were shot and killed and another 2,700 others were injured during protests at the border with Israel. Some of those killed were individuals from aid agencies who were providing medical care to the protestors. Some of those killed and injured were children.

On Friday morning a 17 year old walked into a high school in Texas and shot and killed nine students and one teacher.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, while we wait for redemption.

Perhaps the best we can muster in a world like ours, in a time like ours, is a groan, a sigh, and dim hope. We live, as many have noted, in a time of perpetual amnesia – because we know so much about the world, and we know how broken it still is, we are bombarded with story after story to such a degree that we can barely remember what happened a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. Our televisions and newspapers and timelines are filled with such tragic stories and we just move from one to the next.

If we find ourselves moaning and groaning, sighing and crying, then we are on the right track. We hope for a better tomorrow, for a world that does not look like this one. We yearn for what has been promised in faith, but do not yet see.

            All of creation groans.

Paul is right to name and claim our salvation – but we are saved in the hope of redemption. We live in the light of God’s good promise, however, we do not live in the fulfillment of that promise.

We are still waiting.

Like pilgrims in the midst of a great journey, or a woman anticipating her baby’s due date, we are not yet at the goal.

And Paul tells us that while we wait, we do so with patience.

The great missionary of the 1st century loves to do this type of thing, which is to say Paul liked navigating the confusing contours of now and not yet. Paul danced between the present time and the time when all things would be conquered by God.

Most of us are not like Paul. Rather than enduring the days at hand with patience, we want to see change here and now. We are not the backseat Christians who willingly accept the status quo. No, when we see and feel the groans of the world we want it to stop. Now.

There are plenty of Christians in the world who rest on opposite sides of this spectrum. Some sit back and wait, without a care or concern for how things currently are, because one day (whenever that might be) God will fix everything. And for as much as that is true, they are like those who see a building on fire and instead of reaching for a bucket of water they say, “It must be God’s will.”

And then on the far other side there are those who are in denial of present sufferings and are utterly convinced that if they only prayed harder God would make them healthy and wealthy. They might receive a horrible diagnosis, or lose their employment, but they believe that God is waiting for them to pray the right prayer before God drops the perfect cure of the more lucrative career.

But us other Christians, those who find ourselves in the middle, we know that it is no comfort to deny present suffering, nor is it comforting to focus all of our energy on the hope that God will fix everything in a jiffy. We know that reflections on the future must be, at times, postponed. It is not the future that commands our attention but the present.

And here in lies the crux of it all, we focus our focus on the present, not as a denial of the future, but precisely because we know that we don’t know what the future holds.

We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all things in this world will perish; we’ve all seen it happen too many times, but the cross of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of this lonely and broken world and it is the sign of our hope. Easter boldly proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning – Pentecost shows us how we take the first steps.

Today of course is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The disciples spent forty days with the risen Jesus, learning about the kingdom of God, before Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. But then they had ten days of waiting.

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Imagine if you can, though we certainly can’t, what it must’ve been like to not only encounter the risen Jesus, but to lose him again, and to wait. What were those conversations like in the ten-day waiting period? What plans were made in case nothing happened? Were they patient in their hope?

Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, all the disciples were in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire place where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

They immediately went forth from that place proclaiming the good news to all with ears to hear, and on that day the Lord added 3,000 to the growing faith, and they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Many of us, if not most of us, would like to see the Spirit manifest like those first disciples did on the day of Pentecost. We want signs of power and majesty, we want this sanctuary windswept and on fire for the Lord. But, like the readers of Romans, we may not receive the signs we so desperately desire.

Hope that is seen is a limited kind of hope, for if we can see what we want, it is certain to be limited to what we are now able to behold. Do you think those disciples were yearning for the Spirit to give them the strength to speak in other languages? Do you think they prayed night after night for the Spirit to fall upon them like a blazing fire? Do you think this is what they hoped for?

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They had no idea what they were in for! There’s no way they could’ve possibly imagined what would happen ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s no way they could’ve known the Spirit would arrive in such a dramatic way. There’s no way they could have predicted that the rest of their lives would be spent in an illegal community based on the worship of a crucified God.

Something greater was in store for all of the first disciples, greater things were yet to come – and the same holds true for us.

Paul is completely convinced, though he was not there on the day of Pentecost and did not receive the Spirit in the same way, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not really know how to pray as we should and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

There is something majestically powerful in being reminded that even when we cannot find the right words, the Spirit is with us in our sighs. Because how in the world could we possibly pray, in the right way, for those living in Israel and Palestine? What kind of words could we offer to parents who discovered that their children were murdered by a gunman in their school?

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            There are no words except for the deep groaning of the cosmos that can come close to what needs to be said in prayer.

And yet, we have hope. Not a blind foolish hope, but a deeply rooted hope in the one of came to live, die, and rise again. We have a hope, like the early disciples, that what we see and hear and experience now is not the end. And, at the same time, the Spirit is with us to give us the strength to not only yearn for a better world, but also actually do something about it.

That’s the thing about hope – it is meaningless unless it prompts us toward transformation. Hope that remains in the heart and mind alone is nothing more than a clanging cymbal. But our hope, a hope for a world that we cannot yet even imagine, is like a fire – it warms the soul and lights our path.

When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on all the disciples it was like a fire and it spread in wild and unpredictable ways. Those first followers of Jesus, though persecuted and often killed for their faith, are responsible for us having heard the Word at all. They were so on fire in their hope that they went beyond what they could see and hope for, knowing that with patience, the world would begin to change.

In 1969, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had only been a national show for year. And on one fairly typical episode Mr. Rogers entered the screen as usual, but instead of putting on his infamous sweater, he mentioned something about how hot it was outside and decided to soak his feet in a tiny swimming pool. While resting and relaxing, a black policeman name Officer Clemmons walked by and Mr. Rogers invited him to share the small pool. Officer Clemmons quickly accepted, rolled up his pants, and placed his very brown feet in the same water as Mr. Roger’s very white feet.

Today, in 2018, this might seem insignificant, but in 1969 it was everything. In the late sixties public pools became the battleground of segregation to such a degree that it was illegal in some places for black bodies and white bodies to be in the water at the same time, if at all. There are horrible images of the summers in the 60s in which white pool managers would pour acid into pools when people protested by swimming with other races.

But for one episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the country was shown a glimpse of the future, a future of hope, one that few people could possibly imagine at the time.

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John Wesley, the pioneer of renewal that led to the birth of our church, once said that if you light yourself on fire, people will travel miles to watch you burn. Our hopefulness, our yearning for a new day and a new way, should be like a fire that people can’t help but watch.

Mr. Rogers had a fire that was as simple and yet profound as soaking his feet in a swimming pool, but it was exactly his hopefulness that resulted in people tuning in each and every week for decades.

We talk a lot about how we, as Christians, are citizens of a different kingdom – but sometimes we don’t take the next step to imagine what the kingdom looks like. God’s kingdom is one ruled by hope. A hope for things not yet seen, a hope for a time we cannot even imagine, a world in which the fire of Pentecost is present in everyone we encounter.

The Holy Spirit with its bravado and bombastic arrival is always pointing from death to new life, it is always praying with us and through us even when we do not know what to say, and it is always redeeming us for a new day and a new way. Amen.

Rebelling Against King Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alex Joyner about the readings for the Day of Pentecost – Year B (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-17, 16.4b-15). Alex is the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore in the Virginia Conference, and he regularly blogs on his website Heartlands. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad puns, living off the map (literally), church birthdays, faithful diversity, the connections between Babel and Pentecost, the impermanence of land, giving voice to the voiceless, and the community in the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Rebelling Against King Jesus

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The Whole Truth

1 John 5.9-13

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

We all sat uncomfortably in the sanctuary on a Sunday evening listening to our youth director wax lyrical about the importance of witnessing. I can remember shifting around in the wooden pew while struggling to figure out what in the world she was talking about.

Witnessing? When I heard the word my mind immediately jumped to the “DUM DUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM” found at the beginning of every Law & Order episode. Witnessing, to me, sounded like what you did when you saw something terrible happen.

So we listened and listened until she announced that it was time for us to share our testimonies. And testimony was another word that, to me, sounded more relevant in a courtroom than in a sanctuary. But she slowly pulled out a microphone plugged into the sound system, backed away, and waited for one of us to testify.

In many churches, testimony occupies a powerful place in worship. Preachers and lay people will tell others about how God has changed their lives.

But for a privileged group of young high school students, our time of testimony sounded a little more like this:

“A few weeks ago, I was really worried about passing a test that I didn’t study for, so I asked for God to help, and like, I actually passed.”

“I remember really wanting a new baseball bat when I was younger, and I guess God had something to do with it when I opened one on Christmas morning.”

One by one we listened to these rather trite and cliché renditions of all that God had done for us. And after each person finished, the microphone stood there before us waiting for the next witness.

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The last person to go was a girl in my grade who usually remained totally silent during youth group. She participated with the minimal amount of effort, and kept coming back every week even though it looked like she hated it. She slowly made her way forward and then very quietly said into the microphone: “I don’t really know what to say, except that I don’t really have any friends. But being here, with you, talking about God, it makes me feel like maybe I could have friends.”

To this day, I can remember seeing the solitary tear running down her cheek, and I can remember the silence in the sanctuary after having actually experienced a testimony.

Testimonies, at least as they are experienced in church, are those times when we are given the opportunity to name and claim what God has done for us. And, of course, some will always experience God through a good grade, or a wonderful sunny afternoon, or a perfect Christmas present. But real testimonies, the whole truth that points to God’s wonder in the world, are based on the location and experience of marginality. Proclaiming the truth as we see it functions as a catharsis and healing for those sharing, and those receiving. In testimony we share our burdens together.

I knew relatively nothing about that girl in my youth group prior to that night. We had gone to elementary school, and middle school, and even high school together, but it was only on the other side of her three-sentence witness that I actually took the time to get to know her.

I learned about her struggles at school and the bullying she experienced. I learned about medical problems, and high anxiety. I learned all sorts of things because she took the first step in proclaiming the whole truth of her life.

In greek, the word for witness is MARTYRIA, its where we get the word for martyr. Christians bearing witness to their faith have often suffered for doing so. Because they are willing to point toward God as the source of their being, they have been punished and even killed. And so, today, we say things like “There’s a war on Christianity!” In other places in the world this is undoubtedly true, but here in America it is not. So much of what Christianity has become is made to feel normative for the rest of our culture. Few of us, if any of us, will ever be persecuted for our faith.

That’s not the kind of witness, the kind of testimony, that John talks about. The witness John talks about is the kind that could change everything about everything.

It requires a vulnerability that leaves most of us frightened.

Today is Mother’s Day, which to be honest, is one of my least favorite Sundays in the year. Don’t get me wrong though, I love mothers. I love my mom, I love my mother in law, I love my wife who is the mother of our son. But many of us forget that motherhood is not normative for all women. Just as Christianity is not normative for everybody in Woodbridge.

I can’t tell you the number of women who have told me about the pain they’ve experienced in churches on Mother’s Day. Women without husbands or children are implicitly, and even sometimes explicitly, made to feel less than whole because of not being a mother… in church! And, because it can be so uncomfortable, they usually don’t tell anyone about how it makes them feel. Instead, this is just a Sunday they avoid church.

It is difficult for them to bear witness to how they have been made to feel, it is hard to testify to the truth of their experience, because it is often disregarded. In a world and culture ruled by heterosexual white males, anything other than that paradigm is often made to feel less than worthy.

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That is why testimony, true testimony, comes from the margins of life, from those often made to feel less than. That is where the true power of God’s grace is made manifest. It is good and right for us to listen to those from the periphery of life (basically to people unlike me!), because they are connected with God in a way that is closer to the incarnation than we often realize.

The testimony of God is Jesus Christ. In order for God to bear witness, in order for the divine to speak the whole truth about reality, God became flesh in Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation that is the testimony of God.

God bears witness; God tells the whole truth. In the people Israel God spoke toward the wonder of a people banding together for a different way of life. From the covenant with Abraham to the declarations of Moses to the anointing of David – God witnessed to the whole truth of divine power.

And the history of God’s witness culminates in the testimony of and to the Son – Jesus the Christ. All along the way God places the divine witness alongside human witness, it is why we still stand and share our stories of God even today. This is only possible because of God’s willingness to be humbled and made low.

Sometimes we drop the word “incarnation” without confronting its stark and bewildering truth – God is humbled to the point of joining humanity – the Son journeys to us from the far country and becomes one of us. There is nothing quite so profound and disturbing as knowing that God, all mighty and all powerful, saw fit to take on flesh and dwell among us.

The whole truth of the incarnation, the testimony of God, is made manifest in Jesus who drank the same dirty water, and walked the same dusty roads, and slept in the same fragile places as human witnesses. God came to the margins of reality, and lived among the margins in order to draw attention to the truth of the cosmos.

This is no message about being a better person, or tapping yourself on the shoulder for any number of good deeds. No, John beckons us through the sands of time to ponder the difficult truth of Jesus – Our God joined the condition of his creations – God became a creature.

And like all testimonies – all truths that encourage us to reconsider the world around us – it can be accepted or rejected. But God will not hold back, God does not withhold God’s self from dwelling among us, God does not withhold difficult and challenging words about the nature of reality, God does not refuse to speak to us.

God testifies! We know the story of God, we know God, because we know Jesus. Jesus is God’s witness in the flesh. Jesus, in fact, is the greatest witness in the midst of all other witnesses. And yet, in Jesus’ greatness we also discover the lowliness and the humiliation of God. We discover the great divine paradox that strength is found in weakness.

Jesus, the incarnation, the divine testimony, chose to drink our dirty water, and walk our dusty roads, and sleep in the same fragile places as us. Jesus chose to live and minister at the margins of life. The Son of God entered the far country of our existence – faced our greatest fears and experienced our greatest losses.

            Jesus suffered and died.

            And the Son of God brought to us eternal life.

The whole truth of God’s testimony is that God gives us eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is that simple, yet truly profound witness that gives us the power and the courage to speak our whole truth regardless of the consequences. It is what empowers a teenage girl to enter into the truth of her own suffering and express a yearning for friendship. It is what gives voice to too many women who are made to feel voiceless. It is present in all who speak from the margins of life, because in Jesus we discover that this life is not the end!

And it is this, the whole truth, which might be the most important thing you will ever hear; more important than any earthly human testimony. All of scripture, all of John’s words, all of Jesus’ life are offered to us so that we might know we have eternal life.

Because when we know, deep in our bones, that we have eternal life, we can begin to speak the whole truth into this world here and now, and everything can change.

When the young mother met the new preacher, she was skeptical, but she was a good Christian so she kept going to church every week. However, after a couple weeks of pretty terrible sermons, she decided to assemble her children on the porch on Sunday afternoons for their own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, and then she would come up with a sermon that connected with the text, and they would conclude with another psalm.

Word about the services began to spread through the local community and people started asking if they could attend. This went on for weeks until over two hundred were regularly gathering in her side yard, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing.

The woman’s name was Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, and this happened in the early 1700s.

At the time women we largely forbidden from speaking in churches, or leading services, or even from reading. And nevertheless, she persisted. It was because of her rigorous commitment to education, and theology, that our church exists today.

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Sometimes we forget that Jesus’ disciples made a great deal of trouble when they redefined what it meant to be a community of faith by including women – it upset the tradition of the time and it’s what got them persecuted. In fact, the first churches recorded in the New Testament met in homes, often overseen by women.

And so, it is in the great irony of this world, that women are often treated as less than whole, whether in the 1700s or today, and yet without them none of us, and none of this, would be here.

The whole truth of God’s grace is that power will always be found at the margins of life: God choses the low to bring down the mighty. God chooses the ordinary to make manifest the extraordinary. God came to us in Jesus, and everything about everything changed forever. Amen.

Trust and Disobey

1 John 5.1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and the blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

Annual Conference is a strange beast. It is uniquely United Methodist, and it is the one time each year when church representatives, clergy and lay, from all over our state get together to worship, to pray, and of course, to vote.

The first time I ever went to annual conference, it was years before I actually became a pastor. The lay representative from my home church was unable to attend, so they asked me, a teenager, to go in his place. I, at the time, was beginning to wrestle with a call to ordained ministry so I figured I’d have to find out what all this stuff was about anyway, so I went.

I can’t tell you much about that first annual conference. There were a lot of people in one place uncomfortably shifting around in their seats as we listened to individuals talk about all kinds of stuff that were only barely relevant to the mission of the God in the world, but eventually something happened that I will never forget, and it took place when we came to the time of voting.

Someone, somewhere, put forth a motion requiring every United Methodist church in our conference to take at least one Sunday a year to pray for our country’s troops, and more specifically for those fighting overseas.

There was an audible affirmation of the motion, but before it could be put to a vote, somebody, somewhere, offered an amendment. They walked up to their microphone and said, “I am fine with praying for our troops, frankly we should be doing it anyway without being told to do it at least one Sunday a year. My only concern is that if we mandate and require all churches to be obedient to this rule, then we should also ask them to pray for our enemies, particularly those whom our military is fighting against.”

And like a stick of dynamite, the room exploded in arguments.

It took another hour of debates and amendments and further motions, 60 minutes of pastors and people pontificating about the validity of such a strange and bold request, before we got rid of the original request all together. Not because people were against praying for our troops, but because we could not agree on whether or not to pray for our enemies as well.

Obedience is a dirty word. It is a dirty word because we don’t like getting too close to it; it makes us uncomfortable. In our freedom-worshipping culture, we strive for independence and liberty above all else. We talk about being guided by our inner voice, we promise our children they can become anything they want when they grow up, we tell people to make their own destiny.

And yet Jesus, the one whom we worship, love, and adore, loves us enough to command us toward obedience.

No doubt this sounds authoritarian, and perhaps we don’t like imagining Jesus this way. Maybe we’d rather think of Jesus’ words as suggestions more than commands. From the time we are young we are taught about the folly of fascism and the need to reject superior rulers who tell us what to do. But lest we reject Jesus for his calls to obedience, let us at least admit the truth of our own subjugation.

We are all obeying somebody.

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In this world we respond to a great number of masters with an almost blind and willful ignorance – our peers, our families, our jobs, our government, our political parties, popular fads. They all dictate, in some way, shape, or form, what we are to say, how we are to act, and who we are to be.

We do as we are told.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.

For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.

We could debate, much like the people at annual conference did, about what it means to be obedient or not. But perhaps the better question is: “Who do we really obey?”

There are of course some Christians who boldly claim that Jesus, and the bible, are their ultimate authority – and they follow them explicitly.

I love meeting people like that, and not for the right reasons. I love people who blindly obey the bible because there are all kinds of crazy stuff in here, and contrary to John, it can feel pretty burdensome.

In Leviticus the people of God are expressly forbidden from wearing clothing with more than two materials mixed together (Leviticus 19.19). Do you know how hard it is to find clothing made of only one material? Most of what we wear is a blend of more than one substance, and we are so bold in our sinfulness that we brazenly show up to church wearing our sins literally on our sleeves!

Or we can look at other places in Leviticus, like when it says men must not cut the hair on the sides of our heads, or cut the edges of our beards (Leviticus 19.27). Take a good hard look around the room right now; not only do we have heathens in different clothing materials, we’ve got men on a straight shot to eternal damnation because they decided to pull out the bic razor this morning before they came to church!

The laws are indeed burdensome!

And yet, somehow, John is bold to proclaim the opposite.

Jesus requires our obedience to his commandments. We are called to obey that which he calls us to do. And, taking a cue from the New Testament, if we look at the summary of the commandments as loving God and loving neighbor, we can then begin to wrestle with how difficult those two things may or may not be.

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Loving our neighbors is about more than treating folks like family. In fact, sometimes that’s exactly the opposite of what we want! Just think about the last time you gathered around the table for Thanksgiving with family members you fundamentally disagree with! Rules and calls to obedience in terms of loving our neighbors become nothing more than abstractions unless they are somehow tied to a deep awareness of the mystical union we have with God in Christ Jesus.

It is precisely because God loves us, in spite of us, that we can love others. It is in the recognition of our unworthiness that we can actually meet the other where they are and, in spite of differences, we can love one another.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, not because being close to Jesus helps us get what we need or want.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, because we believe that being close to Jesus allows God to fulfill whatever God wants to get out of this world!

We live in a time deeply saturated in pluralism, when countless value systems vie for superiority or are uncritically embraced such that we no longer know who we are or what we are doing. We so root ourselves in ourselves, that we move farther away from God while telling ourselves that at least we are free.

But the Gospel is disorienting. It finds us where we are, in our shadowed existence, or deeply rooted in our own convictions, and it turns it upside down. The messages of grace, of Jesus’ life-death-resurrection, are unnervingly radical!

The commandments to love God and neighbor, though difficult according to the ways of the world, are possible through the impossible possibility of God. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God – when we believe (not just with our minds but with our actions) that Jesus is the Messiah, we begin to see how bound together we all are, and how we, and all of our earthly perspectives, have been conquered by God for something greater.

Right now the contemporary church, from the realm of United Methodism to conservative evangelicalism, is struggling. The church struggles, in large part, because of our failure to recognize how we are bound to God and not to the world – such that many churches take their theological cues from the powers and principalities and assert them on scripture, rather than the other way around.

It is precisely why our divisions are growing wider and our walls are growing taller.

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For too many decades, our denomination (United Methodism) has struggled with the question of human sexuality. We have in our polity the theological position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The belief and claim manifests itself in different ways from leaders barring homosexuals from becoming members at local churches to committees denouncing transgendered individuals, to pastors being punished for officiating at same-sex weddings.

Part of the church’s willingness to claim homosexuality as incompatible is rooted in the fact that our denomination believes that in so doing it is remaining obedient to Jesus’ commandments.

For months there has been a commission within the denomination seeking a Way Forward regarding human sexuality. They have read books, and prayed together, they have listened to stories, and imagined the future of the church. Our governing council of Bishops met this week in Chicago to begin looking at the commission’s proposals about where the church is being called and what’s in store for us.

There have been parliamentary debates and procedures to follow, press releases are being put together, and some churches are already banding together in hopes of starting their own denomination whether leaning traditional or progressive.

And, in the coming months, we’re going to talk more about the commission and the path of the United Methodist Church. But right now we don’t know a whole lot more than what I just told you. However, one thing we do know is that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.

Everyone.

Gay or straight, black or white, soldier or enemy, whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God. We, and they, are made one, by the Spirit, in Christ Jesus who came to live, die, and rise again. We can build our walls higher, we can put stricter language in our institution, we can do all kinds of things, but only Jesus conquers the world.

            Jesus conquers us.

To confess with our lips and with our lives that Jesus is the Messiah is a radical thing. It compels us to tell the world that no one else has the power Jesus has – not a political party, not a government, not even a church institution. It pushes us to look in the face of the powers and principalities and triumphantly declare, “No more!”

It is the beginning of a revolution of our hearts. Amen.

Knee-Jerk Love

1 John 4.7-11

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

Love has got to be once of the most misused and misunderstood words in our entire lexicon. Think, if you can, about the last time you used the word – perhaps you said it to a family member this morning, or maybe you used it in reference to the breakfast you consumed, or the movie you watched last night, or even the way you feel about this church.

In our daily live we drop the word “love” like it’s going out of fashion – Oh I love your outfit! You’ve got to watch this new show on Netflix, I just love it! There is no restaurant on this planet that I love more than Chic-Fil-A!

We love to love love.

And, more often than not, out love is directed away from what’s essential and toward the things that do not actually provide life. It has become far easier to express our love for meals, and experiences, and even God than toward our families and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

That might seem and sound strange, but it can be pretty easy to love God. God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food! God does all kinds of nice and wonderful stuff for us. And because we’ve relegated God to some realm beyond, we can talk about God in this place and use words like “love” while acting as if God isn’t even in the room.

Our world is terribly confused about love.

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Perhaps it’s so confused because love can be so convoluted. We read from 1 John that love is the hoped-for and normal response between people and the Lord. Love is perfected in God, and God is perfected in human love. This love, whatever that actually means, calls us to see the sacred and holy not in God alone, but also in each person whether we think they’re worthy of love or not.

            It is in the loving of the other that we, and they, are made both human and holy.

And this is at the heart of it all. We can talk about how much we love God because God loves us, but without loving our fellow human beings, we cannot know God!

Let that sink in for just a moment – without love for one another, we cannot know God.

And love is difficult! Differences in nation, religion, gender, generation, sexual orientation, race, they all have these unspoken rules and guidelines about who should be included in the loving circle of comfort. However, those same rules and guidelines also tell us implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, who is not worthy of love.

But we’re here in church, so we must be doing something right. Otherwise, why else would we gather early on a Sunday morning to day-dream about God? We could take the time right now to examine the evil people in the world, as opposed to those we love, and explore what it would mean to change our behavior toward them. But that’s no easy task, and that’s not really what John is talking about.

Love is this: Not what we can do, but what God can do through us. We know love, and we know God, because God was, and is, willing to love us even though we do not deserve it. God sacrificed God’s own Son, for us, in spite of us.

That is love.

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Therefore the act of loving the other is not so much about conjuring up in our minds the most evil person in the world and deciding to love him or her, but instead looking a little closer to home at those who produce a knee-jerk reaction in us.

Do you know what I mean when I say knee-jerk reaction? It’s that almost involuntary feeling we experience when we experience something outside of what we are comfortable with.

You might consider yourself a modern person, but how do you feel when you see two men or two women kissing in public? You might imagine that you have a pretty cosmopolitan view of the world, but how did you feel the first time you saw items in the grocery store listed in a different language? You might even think you’re a pretty racially progressive person because you attend a church that looks like this on Sunday morning, but how would you feel if this is what your home looked like on Sunday afternoon?

Those are knee-jerk reactions.     

Just over a year ago my family and I drove up to Woodbridge to start looking at houses. We searched online through our parameters and eventually had a list of homes we wanted to see in person. The very first house was in a nice neighborhood, not too far from the church, and when we pulled up in front of the address we immediately started to imagine ourselves living there. We walked around the front yard while we waited for our realtor, made comments about the trees and expressed our delight in the thought of our son playing in the front yard.

When our realtor finally arrived he walked briskly over to us and said, “I’m glad you two have a list of other homes to see cause you’re not gonna like this one.” I said, “Wow, I appreciate the wisdom, but I’m curious, what is it about the house that make it so bad? Is there something wrong with the roof? The foundation? The air-conditioning?”

All he said was this, “Come back here around 4:30pm and take a good look at the type of kids getting off the school bus. You don’t want to live here. Why don’t you let me show you some nice places in Stafford? I can get you into a nice neighborhood where you won’t have to worry about any of those types of people.”

Those types of people.

He had a knee-jerk reaction toward that which was different from himself. When he looked around the neighborhood and saw different skin pigmentations, he made an assumption that it was not the place for us, because presumably it would not be the place for him.

And that man is no different than any of us here this morning. For some of us it’s race, for others it’s class, or economics, or sexuality, or religious convictions, or political persuasions. We all have some sort of knee-jerk reaction to the other in our midst.

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Hopefully some of us are self-aware enough to already know where and who those types of people are for us. It won’t take us long to conjure them up in our minds, and we still experience that knee-jerk of confusion, frustration, and even anger.

For others of us, it will be a little harder. Whether it’s because we think too highly of ourselves and imagine that we have no judgments of others, or because we sit in places of privilege and we are never made to feel less than ourselves by others, or we haven’t taken the time to address our sinful and harmful feelings toward others, it can be very difficult.

Love is a very difficult thing. And again, I’m not talking about the love any of us have for our families or friends or spouses, but the love that we are called to have for the very people who draw forth knee-jerk reactions in us. Love is a very difficult thing.

And yet, and yet, God loves us. And not only that, God is love.

The Greek word for love here in 1 John is AGAPE – it is a love that gives without expecting anything in return. It is a form of love that is sanctified and sacrificial. We might even call it unconditional love. And that’s what God is, AGAPE.

God is not the love that we often experience in our regular daily lives, a love that is contractual, a love in which “I’ll do this if you do that.” That’s is not AGAPE.

God is love, offered freely to us, the very people who have no reason to deserve it. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We are the beloveds of God. We are those who receive the impossibly possible love of the divine.

God is love. God is AGAPE. Dare we say anything different? In this broken and battered world ruled by impersonal forces, ruthless principalities, and extremely complicated issues, some might want another gospel. We might want church to simply be a place where we can gather to feel better about ourselves. I know of no better way to feel joy than to know that God loves me, even me, in spite of me.

Yet, to proclaim this thing we call church as anything less than the heart of the universe as being a pulse of mercy with infinite passion and love and grace for all is to betray the gospel.

God as love, as AGAPE, pushes us to love everybody. And we cannot scare people into acceptance, or terrify them into tolerance. That will only result in a tepid version of reception that has almost nothing to do with love. It will result in a world still ruled by the powers and principalities. It will result in certain people not wanting anything to do with certain people.

In the church, in the fellowship of God with God’s people, there is little room for those who nurse grudges, who seek revenge, who assume superiority, or care little about the needs of others. Mercy and forgiveness and love are at the heart of God, and therefore they are poured on us!

            We are God’s beloved, we are God’s AGAPETOI.

True AGAPE love, the very nature of God, is loving the very people who create within us a knee-jerk reaction. Christ died for the godly and the ungodly. God gave of God’s self for us and for all. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, all of humanity has been bound together by a love that will not let go: A love for the beloved. AGAPE for the AGAPETOI.

In each of your bulletins you will find a very special piece of paper. It is special because it is blank and because it is for you and you alone. All of us are going to take a few moments to prayerfully consider the people who produce knee-jerk reactions within us. We are going to contemplate the people in our lives, not far away and removed, but people we regularly encounter who make us feel uncomfortable, and frustrated, and angry.

And then we’re going to write it down on the piece of paper, and fold it in our hand. We are going to hold onto the name or the type of person tightly in our hand, we are going to grip it tightly until we need to let it go. And then we will. Amen.

 

(During Communion each congregant was invited to drop their paper in a large and clear baptismal bowl, the paper is specially designed to dissolve in the water such that we can experience how, in baptism, all of these false identities have been washed away.)

BFD

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Benson McGlone about the readings for Easter 6B (Acts 10.44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17). Benson is currently planting a church in Northern Virginia, and is one of the hosts of the Free Range Church Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including house churches, quantity vs. quality, starting in the middle of a story, reckless singing, breaking chains, difficult commandments, and being conquered by God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: BFD

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