Beyond Belief

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that your were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with it commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grow into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

It was a warm summer night in Washington DC. Eight friends gathered around a table in the backyard of one of their homes, there was wine and appetizers, and toasts were being made back in forth in celebration of all the good things they had going for them.

“We didn’t want the evening to end,” one of them remarked later.

But around 10pm the festivities came to a screeching halt.

A strange man wandered into the backyard with a gun, he raised it to the head of one of the guests, and demanded money.

He kept shouting for them to empty their pockets and his screaming got louder and louder.

But there was a problem.

No one had any cash.

Again, they were friends gathering in a backyard.

But their pleas for understanding only further aggravated the assailant and they all grew fearful that something terrible, truly terrible, was about to happen.

But then one of the women at the table said, rather casually, “You know, we’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine and join us?”

It was like a switch was flipped in the backyard and everything changed.

All of the sudden, the look on the man’s face transformed dramatically.

He sat down at the table, a class of wine was placed in front of him and he took a sip. He remarked about how good the wine was and then he reached for some bread, and before long he put the gun in his pocket.

They gathered back around the table, with one extra guest, and they continued their evening.

After some time the man said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” 

They all sat in silence, listening to the insects chirping in the air.

And then he said something that no one was expecting: “Can I get a hug?”

One by one, the friends stood up and eventually they were all embracing in the backyard.

Later, the man apologized for what he had done and walked back out onto the street, still carrying the glass of wine as though it was now a part of who he was.

I first heard this story on an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, and the hosts of the pod were quick to cite this backyard encounter as an example what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. Basically, the idea is that people naturally try to mirror one another so if someone is acting really hostile and someone is very calm, one of them will change to match the other, for good or for ill.

But in the church, we call what happened in that backyard faith.

Because faith isn’t just something we have, faith is something done to us.

Put another way: faith is a gift.

Later, when one of the backyard guests was sharing the story with the hosts of Invisibilia, he said, “We had no idea that words – an invitation to celebration – could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like a miracle.”

It was like a miracle.

Why are you here? Some of you are here because you’ve gone to church for as long as you can remember and you can’t really imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you have questions that you want answered. Some of you are here because life has dealt you a raw hand and you’re hoping to hear some Good News. And still yet, some of you are here against your will! Someone else brought you, or dragged you here.

Well, no matter why you’re here, hear this:

Remember that at one time you were without Jesus, you were strangers to the covenant of promise. Remember that at one time you had no hope whatsoever and you were without God in the world.

But now. But now! In Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

What Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, what we proclaim as the Good News in church today about what God has done to us, it should shock us. 

That we, the church, with all of our disparate ideas and ideologies, that we exist is almost beyond belief.

I mean, take a look around, consider even those who are worshipping with us online, we come from different places with different backgrounds, we are different ages and we make different wages. That such a group can gather together to worship God is, in fact, beyond belief, because we do not have to believe in something that we can see.

Even amidst all of our warts and bruises, all of our faults and failures, it matters that we are here.

It matters because we are what God has done.

We don’t know much about the circumstances regarding Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. However, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to deduce that the community addressed was struggling with the stunning and, perhaps unbelievable, revelation that even Gentiles were included in kingdom of God. 

Two hostile groups, Jews and Gentiles, have been brought together by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.

And, notice the language – have been brought together.

It’s already done and decided.

Imagine, if you can, how shocking and bewildering it must’ve been to receive this Good News. That people, namely Gentiles, who had no business and standing whatsoever with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were now incorporated into the promise. 

It cannot be underscored enough how outside the realm of possibilities this was. It was one thing for a first century carpenter turned rabbi to be the Messiah, God in the flesh, the long awaited One. But it’s another thing entirely that by the blood of that One who came to live, and die, and live again that peace could really reign supreme.

We, today, might think that being Christian merely means that we come to church on Sundays. But Paul seems to have a much greater and deeper vision for what the Ekklesia is, and can be. 

Our existence here and now is already radically related to God’s beyond and all that we do and experience is redefined in the light of God’s future because of God’s past.

Hear it again – There were people in the world without promise, without hope, and without God.

We were those people!

But now we are no longer those people because we belong to God. And not just us! God delights in drawing all things and all people into the new reality we call the Gospel.

All of these distinctions between them and us, Gentile and Jew, Pharisee and Publican, unbelievers and believers, outsiders and insiders, they are all upended in the One who is our peace. 

Contrary to how we often act, or believe, we can only become part of God’s family through adoption. No one comes to Christianity naturally – it runs so counter to everything the world teaches us. Christians, as the early church leader Tertullian put it, are made, not born.

Christianity, at its best, is a system of habits and practices that teach us, over and over again, who we are and whose we are. And it really is we. We, who at one time were not part of the gathering, of the ekklesia, received an undeserved inheritance. We had no hope in the world but now we’re heirs to the great fortune we call salvation.

And, again, notice how all the verbs are passive. That is: they convey the completion of God’s action.

Which is rather notable!

Paul doesn’t say we decided to join this gathering, or that we made a commitment to God, but instead he says we were built, we were joined together.

All of this isn’t something we do. It’s something done to us. 

In the church we call it grace.

In the end, we wouldn’t necessarily choose to live this way on our own. And I don’t just mean the fact that we wake up on Sunday mornings to hang out with people we share little in common with except that Jesus calls us friends. But the act of the discipleship, of following Jesus, it comes not when we decide to take a step toward him, but when we realize that he stepped toward us first. 

For a long time it was just assumed that people became Christians simply by virtue of growing up in a place like this. 

Those days are long gone.

We are now strangers in a strange land, navigating the murky waters of an unknown time for the church. And yet, this is Good News! It is Good News because we have the blessed opportunity to really reflect on what it actually means to be the church and who God is calling us to be. 

Being a Christian isn’t natural. It runs counter to the ways of the world. Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? We are different.

However, we have often tried to avoid the differences that make us different. We don’t want to appear strange, or evangelical, or like those other kinds of Christians (whoever they may be). We’ve been content to let our faith be something that happens on Sundays and only on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it’s been unclear why anyone would want to be like us.

Jesus is the difference who makes us different. 

And he is the One who makes it such that we can be here together even though we are different. 

I said in the beginning that some of you might be here because you’re looking for something, but maybe you’re actually here because something (or rather someone) was looking for you.

Again, our text from Ephesians is full to the brim with God’s actions. 

It is God who has called us here. It is God who has made the impossible possible. It is God who has incorporated all of us into something we would never choose on our own. It is God who has destroyed every dividing wall. And it is God who has established bountiful avenues of connection.

Being here, being part of God church, is only possible because God made it so.

I hope you hear those words as a tremendous comfort because, in the end, our relationship with God is not predicated on how we feel, or what we say, or how we act. Our relationship with God is based entirely on what God in Christ has already done!

I know I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to know that not all of us act like perfect Christians all the time. But that’s not the point! The point is that God, who chose us before the foundation of all things, has called us to be part of the unbelievable gathering we call church.

And it is through the church that we come to know peace.

I mean, that’s a stunning claim! In addition to God’s strange desire to bring a motley crew together like us, Paul writes that we can know peace, that we can really know peace because we know Jesus who is our peace.

It happens to all of us, at one point or another. We think we can go about our merry way doing whatever we want whenever we want when, all of the sudden, Jesus grabs hold of us. 

For some, the grabbing comes like the end of a shepherd’s staff yanking us away from our own foolishness.

For others, the grabbing comes through a particular prayer, or person, or proclamation, in a particular moment.

And still yet, for some of us, the grabbing comes through the offer at a table, to sit down and enjoy the bread and the cup because we’re got something to celebrate. 

In the end, part of the witness of the church is to a set of words – an invitation to celebration – that can grab hold of us and change us. It’s like a miracle. And we’re the proof. Amen. 

Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

We Are The Stories We Tell

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Years ago there was a young man, still early in his ministry, who was appointed to serve a new church. 

At least, it was new to him.

He had gone to the right seminary, and studied all the right books, and prayed all the right prayers, and served in the right ways, and was excited about this next step in the adventure that is faith.

So with eager anticipation, he packed his bags and got in the car to go check out John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia.

This preacher was so excited, in fact, that when he arrived in town, before he unpacked his bags, he drove to the church. He typed the requisite address and admired the different varieties of trees planted perfectly along the road, but when came to his destination, he saw no church.

So he turned around, drove down the road once more and, again, no church to be found.

Finally, he got out of the car, and walked along the sidewalk for a closer inspection until he eventually found the church and he discovered why he missed it so many times: there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the grounds with roots exposed and the church sign, plus the majority of the building, were hidden behind the tree’s long branches. 

The preacher stood awkwardly on the front lawn of the church taking in the sight of the godforsaken tree, and decided he was going to do something about it.

So he drove back to his house, found the box containing his chainsaw, and then he set out to cut the tree down. He made short work of it, moving methodically from branch to branch (he was a Methodist after all) until, before long, he took a step back to admire his work.

The sign and the building were now completely visible from the road and he thought, rather proudly, that maybe just a few extra people would be in church on Sunday morning. 

A few days later, as the pastor sat down to continue chipping away at his first sermon for the church, he received a call from his District Superintendent: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the DS said, “because you’re being reappointed.” 

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. 

John Wesley himself had stood on the roots of that tree nearly 300 hundred years ago and preached to that community. Afterward, the gathered people decided to build a church right next to the tree in honor of the man who started a revolution of the heart, and that young pastor chopped it down.

Stories are remarkably important. Put another way: We are the stories we tell.

They contain and convey just about everything regarding who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held by and within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to share what it ultimately means to be human.

Today we live in a time of competing narratives in which every television show, every streaming service, every website, and every social media platform are vying for our allegiance and our attention. We are constantly bombarded, whether we like it or not, with information that attempts to tell us who we really are, what we really need, and where we are really going.

We live in a time in which more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live in a time in which people spend more time debating where they see the best view of fireworks, or what’s really going on in Loki, or which politician is finally going to set things right than they will consider the children in their community who have nothing to eat. We live in a time in which plenty of us would rather store up all of our treasures on earth without thinking at all about how every gift first comes from the Lord.

Right now, the world is telling us what is important and it’s not easy to discern between the voice of the world, and the voice of God.

But listen to St. Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the powers and principalities that try to define you. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Open your eyes to the beauty of the strange new world made possible by Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Whenever people like us gather like this we are bound together in loyalty to a story that once was not our story. But, through God’s wonderful and confounding actions in the world, that story is now our story. It is a story of cross and resurrection, of the first being last and the last being first, of undeserving people being forgiven.

That story will always but us at odds with the world.

And, according to the ways of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place. People are no longer regularly attending worship and that started long before a pandemic kept us in our houses on Sunday mornings. Christianity has lost its status in the public arena, we are becoming frighteningly illiterate (biblically speaking), and young people are almost nowhere to be seen when it comes to the body of Christ.

Did you know that the average age of a United Methodist is 58?

That means I still have 25 years to go before I’m average!

Did you know that the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years?

The world will tell us that the church is dead, that we have to do whatever we can, however we can, to get people in our building, that we need to cut down every tree (real or otherwise) that is blocking the church from the street, that we need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future because the church is dead.

Thanks be to God then, that we worship the Lord who works in the business of resurrection, of making a way where there is now way, of impossible possibility. 

We don’t have to conform to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! 

While others might shrink away or wail in fear regarding the statistics I just mentioned, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would the church change if we took seriously the radical nature of God’s grace? What would happen if we embraced the trees and traditions of the church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

We are the stories we tell.

Here’s part of mine: 

I am a cradle Methodist – I was baptized when I was 19 days old at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria VA, where I was raised and confirmed. I ran the sound system for worship as a tweenager, played for two of our worship bands, and spent even more time at the church because it was where my boy scout troop met every week. As a teenager one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident and I found myself ministering to friends and family using words that were not my own, but words that had been habituated into my life because of the church and the Spirit.

I began feeling like this might be what God was calling me to do with my life and when I told the senior pastor at my church his response was, “You wanna preach in a few weeks?”

I went to JMU to study religion, I went to Duke for my Masters in Divinity, met my now wife Lindsey while I was in North Carolina and we have a remarkable 5 year old named Elijah Wolf. 

My first appointment was to St. John’s UMC in Staunton, my last appointment was to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I love the church, I always have and I always will. For me, the church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather with people they have nothing else in common with save for the fact that Jesus has called them his friends.

I also love the church because I believe it is the better place God has made in the world. When we pray, when we break bread, when we baptize, we are all getting foretastes of the Supper of the Lamb that goes on and on forever.

Here’s what I know of your story:

I know that the church has been a beacon of the Gospel in Roanoke for 100 years. I know that you care deeply about the Word, about worship, and about mission. I know that you pride yourselves on your hospitality, something my family and I have been the beneficiaries of over the last few weeks. I know that you believe in the work of the Kingdom and are ready for the next 100 years. 

And now God has seen fit to string and knit our stories together.

Being a Christian is all about being brought into another story, a different telling of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that we call the Gospel – The Good News. 

And the stories from the strange new world of the Bible really do shape us – they speak greater truths than simple facts and statistics, they tell us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. That’s why Jesus never really simply explains anything to anyone, but instead is forever going on and on telling stories, stories we call parables. 

At the heart of the church is a willingness to share and to learn the art of story-telling. We learn one another’s stories by gathering for worship, or studying God’s Word, or serving the local and global community. We tell stories and receive stories so that we can cherish the roots of our foundations while, at the same time, looking to the future because God makes all things new.

The story of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church is entering into a new chapter. God is stirring things up in Roanoke. God is bombarding us with the grace that we don’t deserve but we surely need. And God is doing this not because there is a new pastor in town, and God is doing this not because the church is looking forward to the next hundred years – God is doing this simply because that’s who God is.

All of this, the church, the community of faith, grace, it’s all one remarkable gift. It’s the gift of a new past, in which the mistakes we’ve made are healed and the damage we’ve done is redeemed. We call it forgiveness. In the church and in the kingdom of God we are more than what we have failed to do, we are what God has done for us.

But it is all also a gift of a new future, in which the fear of punishment is annihilated and the terror of nothingness is obliterated – we’ve been promised resurrection. 

The Church is a new past, present, and future – it is a way of life made possible by Jesus in anticipation of God doing what God does best.

The world might tell us that the church is in a difficult place. But I look out from this pulpit to all of you gathered here in person, and to all of you gathered online, and I’m not worried about what the world has to say. I’m not worried about anything because my hope isn’t in me or even in any of you, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen. 

Last Things

Romans 1.16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Well, I finally did it! I managed to please everyone! Some of you were happy when I was appointed here, some were happy while I was here, and the rest of you are happy now that I’m leaving!

It was more than a decade ago that I entered seminary in hopes that I would, one day, get to do exactly what I’m doing right now. I was persuaded that the church was already the better place God had made in the world and I wanted to be part of that. And when I was in school for this, I didn’t learn about the virtues of nicety. That is, I didn’t go to seminary in order to learn how to make people feel better about themselves. That’s certainly not what I felt God had called me to do. 

And yet, more often than not, it’s exactly what I, other clergy, and most Christians do all the time.

Rather than speaking the truth, in love, we are far more inclined to sweep things under the rug.

Rather than taking seriously the Biblical commandments of discipleship, we are content with letting our faith be something that happens for one hour each Sunday.

Rather than hoping against hope for things not yet seen, we rest in the presumed knowledge that things will, largely, stay the same.

But none of that is very compelling, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.

Which makes me wonder, as I often do at times like this, why are you here?

For some of you, you can’t imagine being anywhere else. You’ve grown up in the church, or it has become so much of a fixture in your life that this is just what you do.

Meanwhile, some of you are here because you have more questions than answers and you want that to change. Maybe life has dealt you a raw hand, or you’ve experienced one too many hardships, or you’re frightened about what tomorrow might offer and you look to the church to help.

And some of you are here against your will. Perhaps a friend or a family member, in the name of love, brought you here and there isn’t anything you can do about it.

But chances are, no matter why we think we’re here, we’re actually here because we want to know more about Jesus.

I mean, people still keep calling me and sending me emails with rather specific questions about a first century carpenter-turned-rabbi, the Discovery Channel is forever producing new documentaries about the person in question, and people like you drive to places like this on Sunday mornings!

But here’s the truth, a truth not often discussed: we know nothing about Jesus whatsoever except what we read in the New Testament. That’s the rather bizarre part of Christianity. Sure, I’ve been to seminary and committed my life to this and study daily, but all of you have just as much access to the Lord as I do. It’s all right there in scripture.

As Paul says elsewhere: I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. On this, my last Sunday, I hope the same can be said of me. That is: throughout these last four years, I have endeavored to do one thing and one thing only: proclaim the Good News of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. 

But the story of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a story of scandal. It is, to use another Pauline expressing, shameful.

Consider the story, for a moment: A child born under extraordinary circumstances to entirely ordinary parents, raised in the forgotten town of Nazareth, propelled into a ministry of teaching and healing, surrounded by would-be followers who, when things got tough, abandoned him to the fate of death all on his own.

If the story of Jesus had ended with the crucifixion, none of us would be here. He would simply have been one of many who died at the hands of the state for causing too much of a ruckus. 

But that’s not where the story ends. 

In fact, it’s really where the story kicks off: Resurrection! He is risen!

And yet, that’s not often what we hear about Jesus. Instead, we’re inclined to lift him up as some moral exemplar or ethical genius. Neither of which are really true. Jesus broke all sorts of rules and it’s not a very good idea to tell people to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile unless (UNLESS) the one saying those things happens to be God in the flesh raised from the dead!

Now, take a gander at any of the epistles and you will see that there was, and perhaps always will be, an awareness that disciples are going to be tempted to retreat from Jesus in embarrassment, fear, or downright confusion. It happened prior to the crucifixion (See Peter) and it continues to happens.

And no one know this better than Paul.

Notice how he begins his letter to the church in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”

Those are strong words to the early church.

They’re strong words for the church today.

And right at the heart of Paul’s proclamation, and all of his letters, is the Cross.

For the centrality of the Cross to be so prominent in the Pauline epistles is rather odd considering how little it is mentioned or considered in the life of faith today.

There are new churches budding up in all sorts of places that have removed the cross from all worship services.

There are plenty of Christians who have settled with describing Jesus as a nice guy but never dare refer to him as the Lord.

There are loads of churches who envision themselves as yet another version of a boring civic organizing and nothing more.

And, you can’t really blame the church or Christians for doing so. In so many ways we’ve watered down the complete and confounding radicality of Christ’s death for the ungodly (that’s how Paul will refer to it in just a few chapters).

Jesus died an ungodly death for ungodly people.

That’s the scandal of the cross.

But, are we scandalized?

Most Sundays, whether online or in a parking lot or inside a sanctuary, we look like we’ve got it together. Or, at least that’s what we want others to think. But we certainly don’t consider ourselves ungodly or, at the very least, sinful.

In many ways, Paul’s proclamation is a terrifying declaration of knowing the condition of his condition. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” is but another way of saying, I am not ashamed of needing the Lord to do for me what I cannot and could not do on my own!

Do you see? Paul was at a place of recognizing how God is the one who meets us in Christ Jesus, God is the one who acts on and in our lives, God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Or, to put it another way, the Gospel is all about Jesus.

It’s all about what Jesus does for us.

Consider the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. One of them mocked the Lord just as much as the crowds did, but the other asked to be remembered.

Nothing else.

Think on that. He did nothing else. But Jesus says to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

I can’t wait to talk to that criminal in the eschaton. I want to ask him about his experience and what happened next.

I can see him walking around with the saints in glory and they’re all saying, “How did you get in?! You never went to church! You never sat through Sunday school! You don’t even know the Apostles’ Creed! How did you get in?”

And the criminal replies, “The guy on the center cross said I could come.”

I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power God for salvation to everyone!

I am not ashamed of the Gospel – I’m sticking with Jesus, I’m sticking with the church!

I know it might feel like we’ve got nothing to hold on to, but Jesus holds on to us!

The world will tell us many things, but the Gospel tells us something different – we are sinners beloved by the one we crucified. The Lord is risen from the dead and there ain’t nothing that can stop him. Jesus is Lord, God of all things past, present, and future.

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead, he says, “Bring to me your burdens and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, he says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners!”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults and our failures. Instead, he says, “You are mine and I am thine!”

No matter what happens, Christians are people of hope. We are people of hope because the Gospel is the Good News of God for the world. We need not worry over this, that, and the other because our hope isn’t in us. It’s not in me, or in Pastor Gayle. It’s not in the local community or even in the United Methodist Church. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. God is in the business of salvation and resurrection which means that no matter how bad we are or how good we are God can and will do what we cannot. Everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ died. 

We need not be ashamed of the Gospel, it’s the only Good News for a world drowning in bad news and it is ours, for free, for nothing. 

While we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sins, Christ died for us. He has taken the responsibility of salvation squarely on his shoulders. He has just gone and done it all without us having to do anything. And he invites us to simply trust that he has done this for us, and to proclaim that trust by acting as if we really believe it. Amen. 

The End Is Where We Start From

2 Corinthians 5.6-17

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Most stories follow a common structure.

Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.

And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.

All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.

Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):

There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.

And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.

But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!

But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun. 

Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.

Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.

There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]

There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).

There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.

Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 

Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.

Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.

Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.

How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?

Now, that’s an exciting beginning.

You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling. 

TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

The end is where we start from.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”

Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”

Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”

Wow!

That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?

Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.

We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!

Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.

The end is where we start from. 

That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?

No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.

If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!

We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view. 

That’s the end which is our beginning. 

Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.

And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.

We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.

We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.

Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”

The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning. 

And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.

But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well. 

That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided. 

The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.

And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.

Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.

“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.” 

Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”

And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

John 15.9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and bide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no name town and decided to pop in. 

It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the short order cook. While Craddock sat at the count, making his way through some soggy eggs and very strong coffee, a black man entered the diner, sat down at a nearby stool, and ordered an asked for a coffee. The cook promptly turn around, looked at the man in the face, and said, “Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while point over toward Craddock. The cook remained firm and pointed at the door, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”

And with that, the black man sighed and slowly removed himself form the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to sit at the counter, he finished his meal, paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Did any of you feel any chills at the conclusion of the story? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the narrative and it’s enduring reminder about racism in this country, but for some of you this story will hit even harder. It will hit harder because it connects, deeply, with the strange new world of the Bible.

Fred Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism, bigotry, and belittling that happened a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before the crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes power particularly in light of its biblical connections. For, had Craddock been unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance and drove away without giving the whole thing a second thought.

But Craddock knew his Bible, he knew his Bible because he was one of the most important preachers of the second half of the 20th century and eventually became a teacher of preachers. 

And when he heard that rooster all those years ago, it changed his life forever.

I read that story of Craddock’s for the first time in a collection of his sermons years and years ago and the story has always stuck with me.

Which makes me wonder: Can any of you remember any particular sermons? 

Pause for a moment, if you don’t mind, and try. See if you can recall a particular phrase or story or major point. And, should it prove helpful, you can literally pause the audio or the video feed if it helps. Which, frankly, is not something I ever thought I would ever say in a sermon.

Can you remember a particular sermon?

More often than not we tell stories, or preachers preach sermon, in order that they might be remembered. Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke Divinity, believes that sermons and stories should actually function differently: She makes the case that a successful story, and a successful sermon, is one that isn’t remembered. 

Sounds a little strange doesn’t it?

I mean, I’ve stood in this pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last four years in hopes that you all might actually remember at least some of what I’ve said. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember much of what I said last Sunday!

Perhaps Dr. Davis is right – the best sermons are forgettable. They are the best because part of the Christian journey is showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear the Good News because it is the story that makes us who we are. We listen to it again and again because there are countless other narratives vying for our allegiances, but this story, the Gospel, the Good News, is the one that is the difference that makes all the difference. 

And yet, there are some things we receive, from the pulpit or all sorts of other places, that do stay with us and reknit us into who we can be.

That’s what happened to Craddock. Somehow, someway, the story of Peter and the rooster from the Gospels stuck with him such that he could recognize something profound in his own life. 

God, in a sense, worked through a story to speak a truth about Craddock that he needed to hear.

When Jesus gathered with his friends for their final evening before the crucifixion they shared bread and wine, Jesus washed their feet, and he left them with parting thoughts about what it would all look like on the other side.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I’ve said all of this to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends.”

Friends? 

Jesus calls the disciples, us, his friends?

It’s one thing to sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but it’s another thing entirely to think “what a friend Jesus has in us.”

The friends around the table that night with the Lord will shortly deny him, betray him, and abandon him.

In our own lives, like Craddock, we regularly fail to see the Jesus in one another as we constantly deny the value/worth of other people, we chose to look out for ourselves far more than we do for other people, and when all is said and done we’re far more content knowing Jesus is our friend than trying to imagine ourselves as Jesus’ friends.

The words we hear in one time and place can take on an entirely different meaning if we receive them in another time and place. 

Imagine the times you’ve heard a friend remark, “It’s so good to see you.” We can easily brush that aside because we’ve heard those words countless time before. But now imagine getting to see a friend having not seen them throughout the entirety of the pandemic and they greet you with, “It’s so good to see you.”

It becomes something all together different.

Or think of Craddock – He probably heard, read, and even preached the story of Peter’s denial many many times, but it was only when he was in the diner that the words became real.

Consider those first disciples – on their final evening with Jesus, he calls them his friends. Maybe that meant a lot to them at the time, but chances are that it didn’t. It didn’t because within 24 hours Jesus was hanging on the cross. 

But then consider the disciples cowering in the upper room on the evening of Easter when the resurrected Jesus returns to those so-called friends and offer them a word of peace. 

“I have called you friends” takes on a whole new meaning. 

In another part of scripture, Abraham is called a friend of God. That might not seem like much, but the friendship between Abraham and the Lord was made manifest in a bizarre and confounding set of dynamic moments.

Abraham is a content octogenarian who is told to leave the comforts of him behind in order to become a stranger in a strange land, he is told that he will become a father in the twilight of his life, he is told to sacrifice his son, the one he loves, all because of his friendship with the divine.

It’s all too easy to water down the faith into being a call to just love one another a little bit more. But that’s not what faith is about. Sure, we have to love one another, that’s literally what Jesus says to the disciples before and after he calls them his friends. It’s not a question of where or not we love, but whether or not we love rightly.

We, the church, exist to welcome all people with love. But that love usually looks like a bunch of judgments. We talk about one another behind each others backs, we make assumptions that really have no basis in reality, and we are far too content to let whatever those relationships look like remain within the realm of Sundays and never to be found Monday through Saturday.

We, however, can know what real love and real friendship looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Love, to put it bluntly, is cruciform. 

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life, being betrayed, and then returning to the betrayers and calling them friends.

“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard form my Father.” In other words: friends of Jesus are those who share in the remarkable knowledge of what God is doing in the world.

And what is God doing?

God is intimately involved in the creation of a community predicated on a cruciform love, a love that really embraces everyone. A friend of God has this love and offers it toward other and it is not easy – it comes at a cost.

The world is not prepared for this kind of love and, more often than not, it will reject this love just as it rejected Jesus. Jesus, to use his own words, shows ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends, his friends who did not to deserve that title in the first place.

Jesus did that for us.

Chances are, you won’t remember this sermon. Frankly, neither will I. Our brains can hardly handle all of the information that we consume on a regular basis. But, at the very least, I hope we all rest in the somewhat discomforting knowledge that Jesus has called us his friends.

And I’ll end with the enduring words of Randy Newman:

“And as the years go by / Our friendship will never die / You’re gonna see its our destiny / You’ve got a friend in me.” Amen. 

Never Said It

Teer Hardy and I have a new book! Never Said It is our attempt to examine the all-too popular Christian catchphrases that don’t actually appear in the Bible. At all.

Here’s a little bit of the introduction from Dr. Johanna Hartelius:

“In this collection of sermons and brief reflections, Teer and Taylor (the Reverends Hardy and Mertins) pursue an intensely difficult subject, viz., how we contemporary Christians might understand Scripture – what is there and what is not there. The central idea of the book is what is not there, folksy adages that Christians rely on for guidance while ignoring the lack of biblical authority: “God helps those who help themselves, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” to mention just a few. Contrary to popular belief and although, as Teer points out, “The Bible says a lot things,” there are a number of fortune cookie idioms that Jesus never said, Paul never wrote, and the Old Testament never authorized. 

In Never Said It, Teer and Taylor speak frankly and compassionately about why these sayings have been popular despite being fundamentally misleading, and why setting the record straight about them is worthwhile. That they do so by using a comic frame is important to recognize and come to terms with; humor is not dismissal of a serious subject, but a way to relieve the pressure of tragedy. As literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains, the comic frame may allay the “cynical brutality” of generally accepted truths that aren’t really truths at all. As Taylor says, imposters and distortions of God’s word have been used “as a weapon over and over again.” It is no laughing matter that “hate the sin” has been deployed to justify self-righteousness and the torment of our brothers and sisters; what may be laughable, however, if the laughter turns to self-reflection, is the endless human error of (ab)using God’s word to, in His name, inflict pain on His creatures.”

You can find/purchase the book here: Never Said It

The (Di)vinegrower

John 15.1-8

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 

I was a kid, not even in middle school, when my family went on a trip to France. We didn’t roam around Paris or wander around Versailles, we didn’t hit up the Louvre or climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, we spent the week exploring wine country in Provence and Burgundy.

It was beautiful, the food was incredible, and I remember not really understanding anything that anyone said.

On the penultimate evening of our trip, we traveled to a Chateau situated next to rolling fields filled with grape vines. The vineyard was owned and operated by family friends who insisted that we join them for a meal. My sisters and I were on our best behavior as we received a tour of the massive estate and then I was whisked away to the gigantic wine cave in the basement. 

My father was unable to join us on the trip and, as the oldest male guest, it was (apparently) my responsibility to pick out the wine to be consumed with dinner.

Reminder: I was at the tail end of elementary school.

So I wandered the dimly lit halls filled from floor to ceiling with unlabeled bottles of wine, wine that was was grown, fermented, and produced mere feet away from where I was walking. 

The further I walked into the crypt the dustier the bottles became and, somehow, I knew those were the bottles that were the most valuable so I tried to find a few near the middle, and without having any other criteria I selected the wine for the evening.

Minutes later, we were seated around a massive dining table and our host, Bruno, pulled the first bottle I selected, swiftly detached the cork, poured a finger’s width in a glass, and presented it to me to taste.

Not only was I required to select our wine, but I had to taste it to make sure I approved of it before it could be served to the rest of the gathered table.

I lifted the glass and spun around the garnet colored liquid as I had seen my parents do before, I brought it to my nose and sniffed, and finally I opened my mouth and took a sip.

I didn’t like it, but I knew well enough to not make a face or say that I didn’t like it. So I forced myself to smile hoping the exercise would finally come to an end when Bruno insisted I then tell him what I tasted.

“It takes like… the earth,” I said.

I quickly glanced over to my mother for a reaction. 

She was crestfallen. Here we were, guests in a Chateau, drinking the wine from the nearby fields, and I told Bruno it tasted like dirt.

But before I had a chance to say anything else, a giant smile stretched across Bruno’s face and he declared to all within earshot, “Merci beaucoup! Tres magnifique!”

I had, unwittingly, payed the man a compliment.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says to his disciples on their final evening together before the crucifixion and eventually resurrection. They’ve already feasted on the bread and shared the cup, they’ve already had their feet washed by their Lord, and now it’s time for a brief discourse on what happens next, when all is said and done. 

The language of abiding has been common since the very beginning of the church because it is, in a sense, a direct command from the Lord. And throughout the centuries we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to “abide.” Prayer practices, Bible Studies, small groups, Sunday worship, constant communion – they’re all attempts at abiding with the Lord who abides with us. 

And why do we abide? We abide because Jesus is the vine and we are his branches. If we want to bear fruit in this world and in this life, then it will only be possible as a result of abiding in the One who abides in us.

Except, how can Jesus really ask the disciples (us included) to abide in him? I mean, consider when he told the disciples about being the true vine… It’s right after this little lecture that Judas will betray the Lord to death, Peter, disciple supreme, will quite literally not abide by denying his Lord when things fall apart, and the rest of the disciples will leave Jesus to die alone.

And yet, it’s these disciples who receive the call to abide.

Perhaps, then, Jesus is able to command this of the disciples, and all of us, because of his promise to abide in us, to never let us go, even though we don’t deserve it one bit.

Consider – The way the gospel story plays out runs against the grain of how we think things are supposed to go. Our life with God does not end at the cross on a certain Friday as we might expect. 

In the time called life after Easter it all comes full circle – it ain’t over between us. The Last Supper wasn’t really the last at all – in fact, it was the first! The risen Christ, with holes in his hand and a wound in his side, shows up, again and again, transforming our painful and broken lives by abiding with us. 

In steadfast and faithful love, God refuses to leave us or abandon us.

God abides.

God abides, in us.

And then Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Fruit-bearing, then, seems to be the main point of this adventure we call church. So we establish programs and we make calls for action and we do whatever we think we can to make the world a better place.

But, that’s not the same thing as bearing fruit.

The purpose of church, though rarely discussed, is to meet and be met by God. It is, to use the words of John today, a revealing of how God already abides in us.

Being disciples, then, is not all about the work we have to do or responding to a list of requirements – being a disciple is about resting in Jesus. If anything comes from that, and it will, that’s Good News. But the only thing we are asked to do, is abide. 

The goal of the Christian life, of following Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life, who is the vine, is not amassing a set of deeds (good or bad) but simply experiencing our life as the Word made flesh so wonderfully bestows upon us. It is sitting back at the table to which we deserve no invitation, tasting the wine that is the blood of the Lamb, and knowing that it sets us free for true liberty.

Jesus did not come to dwell among us in order to display his own virtuosity. 

Sure, he tells us to be perfect as his Father is perfect, but then a few chapters later he goes on and on about how the only One we can ever call good is God alone. 

Sure, he gives us some lists of dos and donts but then when the disciples do the things they shouldn’t or they avoid doings the things they should do, how does Jesus respond? Does he kick them out of the kingdom? Does he banish them to an eternity of torment? 

No. Jesus abides in them.

Jesus comes to dwell among us in order to bring us home to his Father’s house and to sit us down as guests at the Supper of the Lamb. Jesus desires our contentedness, not our suffering. Jesus offers us the good wine, not sour vinegar.

And salvation, the thing Jesus comes to bring to fruition, it is not just a destination – it is our vocation. That is: salvation is not just something confined to what happens after we die; salvation is our calling here and now. 

Life after Easter means today.

And yet, we can’t ignore Jesus’ language with the rest of his vine imagery. It’s all good and fine to talk about Jesus abiding in us, and bearing fruit in response, but Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

We might imagine the big take away is for us to consider what, or worse: who, needs to be cut off from our lives and then go out with some pruning shears and get to work. Perhaps there’s that one relationship that keeps bringing you down, or you have a bad habit you haven’t been able to kick, or you made a mistake and the guilt just won’t go away. 

And then the church says, “Go and get to work! The time has come to cut away all that stands between you and perfection!”

But, that’s not what Jesus says. 

You see, according to the teller of the tale, God is the one who does the pruning. God is the di-vinegrower (get it?). 

It’s less about us finding what’s wrong within us, or among us, and then going out to get it all fixed and more about relinquishing what we needn’t hold on to, and let God do the work God is here to do.

It’s not about doing all that we can to become the very best versions of ourselves, but instead to consider how God is already working on us because God abides in us.

And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that God is working on, one of the things God is actively pruning, is our foolish belief that we must be able to make it on our own and that we can only trust in our strength alone. 

We live in a society that is deeply drunk on the notion of independence and making something of ourselves no matter the cost. And yet, in another place, Jesus rather pointedly asks, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their life?”

Part of the Christian witness, something we avoid mentioning to our detriment, is that we cannot make it through this life on our own; we are desperately in need of help from one another and from the Lord.

That’s why, no matter how good of a job we do mucking it all up, God continues to bear fruit through people like us who can bear no fruit on our own. 

God, to put it pointedly, works in mysterious ways and, in the end, the wine is offered at the table for a world undeserving.

Hear the Good News: God in Christ arrives in a world, in a vineyard, that cannot bear any fruit on it’s own. It has given itself over to disease, and abuse, and pestilence, and all sorts of other failures. But the di-vinegrower tills the ground, enriches the soil, and plants the seeds that are the Word to bear fruit. 

Jesus, God in the flesh, enters into the muck and mire of this life, of this worthless vineyard, and becomes sin for us. We nail him to a tree and kill him. But then God gives him back to us.

The empty tomb is the fruit of resurrection offered freely to people like you and me for no other reason than the fact that God wants a full table at the Supper of the Lamb.

When Jesus comes, with holes in his hands and a wound in his side, he doesn’t come to see if we’re sorry. He knows our repentance isn’t worth all the effort we put into it because we continue to go on sinning no matter how many times we repent. Jesus doesn’t come to count all of our good deeds. He knows our sins will always outweigh our virtues. 

And yet Jesus comes back to us, Jesus abides in us, Jesus forgives us, and Jesus offers the fruit of salvation to us. 

For free. 

For nothing. 

We do nothing and we deserve nothing.

And yet the invitation still stands. We get to taste the earthy fruit of the vine and know that it is for us. What wondrous Good News. Amen. 

The Heavenly Buffet

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.25-31, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including vine time, different perspectives, the vocation of reading, God’s agency, Christotelism, the grammar of love, faithful fruit, the three Bs, and longterm obedience. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Heavenly Buffet

The Main Thing

John 10.11-18

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will life to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

I was on vacation with my extended family and decided that, as a pastor, I should still probably go to church on Sunday morning. I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches,” picked the one with the least bad website, and announced my intention to the family. When Sunday morning arrived, the only takers I had for church were my sister, my son, and myself.

So we loaded into the car and left everyone to sleep in on Sunday morning as we prepared to worship the Lord in glory and splendor.

The church was beautiful, situated right in the middle of town (a town that will remain unnamed for reasons soon to be proclaimed), and when we pulled into the parking lot we were immediately greeted by a cheerful older couple dressed in their Sunday best.

Our little trio ascended the stairs leading into the sanctuary and were immediately bombarded by two things: an oppressive wave of heat wafting from the chancel area, and a slew of congregants who could sense fresh blood in the water.

Regarding the former: the AC had apparently died and the design of the sanctuary trapped  the summer heat inside and we were to be treated to a sauna-like atmosphere for the service.

Regarding the latter: I couldn’t blame the church folk. Here we were looking like a new little family in town and they were all so happy to see people they’d never seen before.

And in that briefest of moments I had a choice. Well, I had a few. I could’ve grabbed my son and sister and made for the nearest exit so that we could find a church that had their air conditioning running. But seeing as I am a pastor, I felt that a tad impolite. Which brings me to the main choice I had: To share, or not to share, my vocation.

There’s something that happens when a pastor attends another church – people become, as my grandmother says, beside themselves. They want to pull out all the stops, and find you the best pew in the house, and they want to be their very best.

Why?

I’m not sure.

It’s not as if, as a pastor, I would ever come back on another Sunday. I have a job that requires me to be in a particular place at a particular time nearly every Sunday of my adult life.

Nevertheless, I had to choose. And, seeing as I was on vacation, I decided to truly rest, and allow the congregation to rest, and when the first person stepped forward to shake my hand, he sure enough asked what I did for a living. I opened my mouth to say something about being a librarian, or construction worker, or being a mid-tier manager at a sufficiently boring data company when my son, all of three years old at the time, stepped right in front of me and yelled, “I’m Elijah and this is my dad. He’s a pastor!”

And so it began.

15 minutes later, having received a tour that included a forgotten church library, three sets of bathrooms, and a hallway filled with more pamphlets than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time, I found myself sitting in what I was assured to be the best pew in the sanctuary, next to my sister and son and the three of us were completely drenched in sweat.

We stood for the appropriate hymns, we bowed for the requisite prayers, and finally we sat back for the sermon.

I love listening to other people preach. It is so much of what I do after all, and I don’t get to hear a lot of preaching, so I settled in to hear what God had to say through this particular preacher.

The text was John 10 – I am the good shepherd.

The preacher wax eloquently about John’s gospel in general, and the importance of the various I am statements (I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth, and the life). The preacher made various allusions to Exodus 3 when Moses encountered God as the burning bush who declared I Am Who I Am.

It was all well and good, until it wasn’t.

The preacher was wrapping up the homiletical insights and ended with this: “Jesus is the good shepherd who watches out for the sheep. All of you out there are the sheep. You don’t know what to do and what not to do which is why you need Jesus. But I am neither shepherd nor sheep. I, as the pastor, am the sheep dog. Now I know that John doesn’t mentioned the sheep dog but I’m sure that he just forgot to write that part down. As the sheep dog my primary responsibility is to keep all of you in line. I will nip at your legs to make sure you know what you can and can’t do, where you can and you can’t go. So let me do my job.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen?

The church universal has traditionally observed this, the 4th Sunday of Easter, as Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the lectionary cycle, four different texts assigned for each Sunday, today is all about shepherds and sheep from both the Old and New Testaments.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the perfect “life after Easter” message – Jesus returns to us, Jesus finds us, and Jesus will never let us go.

We are given an assurance from the Good Shepherd, just on the other side of rejection and resurrection, that we are loved, that we are cared for, that we matter not based on what we do or do not do, but on what Jesus does for us. 

Which, to be clear, is rather counter to what I heard on vacation.

Consider the sheep: The sheep cannot do much of anything for themselves or their situations. The only thing sheep can do, really, is follow. And even that can be a trying endeavor. And when a sheep is lost, it is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep. The only hope a lost sheep has is being found by the shepherd.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, tell us exactly what he will do, how far he will go, to save a bunch of dumb sheep who can’t do anything for themselves. 

Jesus, to put it simply, does it all.

Jesus gets all the good verbs in scripture and yet, in Christian preaching, he often feels like an after-thought. But Jesus, even here, warns us about that possible proclamation! The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away! Jesus is rebuking religious leaders then, and now, who neglect the people of God. 

Do you see? Discipleship is all about the admission of our condition – we’re sheep; we are dead in our sins. It is all about coming to grips with the fact that we have no power to save ourselves or to convince anyone that we are worth saving.

Consider – More than 18 million children in the US live in food insecure homes. 

For the first time since the 1960’s life expectancy in the US has gone down. 

And, while people celebrated (or lamented) the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd last year, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a 16 year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant.

I could go on and on.

We truly are sheep without a hope in the world unless we have a shepherd who is willing to do for us that which we cannot do on our own. 

Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get in Christ Jesus.

God in Christ finds us in the desert of death, not in the garden of progress. God meets us right smack dab in the middle of our sins, not in the triumph of our accomplishments. 

The life of faith is predicated on recognizing how lost we are, how our lives really are out of our hands, how if we will ever really live again it will entirely be the gift of some gracious shepherd who delights in putting us on his shoulders and carries us home.

We can call the Good Shepherd a good shepherd because while the hired hands run away at the first sign of danger, or puts all sorts of unhelpful (and unattainable) expectations on us, Jesus remains steadfast. And (!) Jesus does not merely care for the sheep within reach, but also gathers the whole flock together! 

For all of the talk in the church today about inclusion (open hearts, minds, doors), the most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners, which includes each and every single one of us!

And that’s the most important part of whatever this thing is that we call church – its about proclaiming God’s grace imputed to sinners through the work of Jesus Christ. If that’s not the beginning, middle, and end of everything we do, then we’re not really doing anything.

But, instead of making that profound proclamation, we are far more likely to be consumed by sheep dogs nipping at our legs both inside, and outside, the church. We hear it from pastors, politicians, pundits, and everyone in between. Things like: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, thinking globally, don’t drink so much, practice mindfulness, inclusiveness, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, on and on and on.

And, all of things are good and fine, we probably should start doing that stuff – but they are not where we begin. If those things are anything, they are a response to what God has already done. 

A Bishop, from another denomination (thankfully), used to be in charge of recruiting for a seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to lead the church and he would end every single interview the same way, with a role play. He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now, tell me why I should go to church…”

Every single person, throughout the years, would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.” Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. But the Bishop would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.” Then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

He recruited for years and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the musical prodigies. Church may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus.

For the church today, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. We might think the main thing is convincing other people to adopt our positions on social issues. We might think the main thing is making sure that everyone falls asleep at night with a full belly. We might think the main thing is putting on the greatest performance in the world every single Sunday. But those are not the main thing.

The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified. The main thing is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born to dwell among us. The main thing is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who never ever stops tending to the sheep.

Friends, the only thing we’ve got that other group don’t, is Jesus Christ and him crucified, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; for us! 

People can get everything they need, except Jesus, from other places and other people. And they might even be better at that stuff than we are. 

But we’re in the Jesus business. That is: we are here to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all that we’ve wronged, that we are love in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be loved, and that, and the end of all things, we know how the story ends because we know Jesus Christ. Amen.