This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 36-41, Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1.17-23, Luke 24.13-25). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including shame in the church, John Prine, preaching with authority, Jesus’ titles, The Good and Beautiful Life, loving the Lord, the preciousness of death, Peter and Social Distancing, and grace in retrospect. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Walking and Talking
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!
I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.
Fine, I’ll do it.
Hey Moses! I need a word.
We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!
And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!
Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!
Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…
A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.
So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:
A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…
A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…
Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!
And so it goes.
We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us.
It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.
It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.
It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.
And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present.
Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.
And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.
Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.
It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.
And we break that one all the time.
We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short.
They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.
The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.
But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.
And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.
God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God.
Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.
When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.
We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.
I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down.
The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.
This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.
We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”
But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations.
The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.
And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”
The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.
But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.
Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.
At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.
But it’s not the bucket he notices.
He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.
And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”
And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.
Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen.
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They keep coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bring him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.”
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for answers. Hundreds of people wrote in about hundreds of different subjects. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”
If you were with us last night for our Maundy Thursday service you heard me address our captivity to the past. That we are so captive to and by the past is evidenced in our grammar, in our actions, and even in our conversations.
I tried to make the case for confusing our sense of time because Jesus is not bound to the past and continues to live and reign with God and the Holy Spirit even today. Moreover, we always gather at the table in anticipation of the divine table around which we shall gather one day.
But now I want us to return to the theme of time, and in particular how haunted we are by it. We are of course haunted by our own histories, the wrong choices we made, and the right ones we’ve avoided – but we are also haunted by the history of our humanity, which, frankly, has been rather inhumane.
The last 100 years have perhaps been the most bloody in our history. Every time we engaged in a new war there was an assumption that the current war would be the end of war and yet we are now, have been, in a state of war for the better part of the last 20 years.
But we are good at denial.
We look at something like the Holocaust and we feel as if we are able to wash our hands of it because the Germans were responsible for that horrific tragedy. But the “we” in that sentence is particularly problematic if the “we” is we Christians or even we Americans. Because, as Americans, we were given the opportunity by Germany to receive countless Jews before the Holocaust ever began and we turned them away over and and over again. Moreover, as Christians, it was the Christianity in Germany that led to the anti-semitism that resulted in death chambers and funeral pyres.
Tonight is Good Friday.
It is not an easy night in the life of the Christian witness.
We are forced to look at the cross, at ourselves, and at our Lord.
And in so doing we cannot deny that we are inheritors of a history that makes us a people who should acknowledge that we are anything but innocent.
There is a church right smack dab in the middle of downtown Detroit that was built before all the white people fled the city. The enormous pipe organ required a frighteningly ridiculous amount of money to purchase and install. The Tiffany stained glass windows portrayed the pivotal moments of Jesus’ life. And the pulpit towered above everyone who sat in the pews.
But, over the years, the sanctuary has changed.
They haven’t been able to afford an organist in years and no one even knows if the organ still works.
The stained glass windows are now punctuated with bullet holes and iron bars.
And they sold the pulpit to a growing church in the suburbs years ago requiring the pastor to just walk around by the pews on Sunday mornings.
I sat in that church years ago and stared up at their cross hanging 20 feet above the ground. I tried to imagine what the church must have been like during its hay day, because when I was there there were only 12 of us in the pews.
I listened to the sermon, but I didn’t pay attention. The cross commanded my attention.
It was huge, far larger than the one used to crucify Jesus. It had a deep are dark hue to it and certainly seemed like it had come from a far away land.
While almost everything else in the church was falling apart the cross was immaculate. Perhaps because it was dangling in the air no one had messed with it.
But the longer I looked at it, the more I noticed something strange; the bottom right corner was all gnarled and messed up.
Honestly, it looked like a dog had been chewing on it.
So after the service, while shaking hands with the faithful remnant, I asked about the cross and in particular what had happened to it.
One of the ushers proudly beamed, “We’ve been taking it down every Good Friday since the first year this church opened and we drag it through the streets of Detroit. And every year we hang it back up on Easter Sunday.”
“So that we don’t forget what we did.”
So that we don’t forget what we did.
At the heart of our faith is the strange and bizarre proclamation that Jesus was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as was possible.
That he was murdered by decree from the religious establishments and from the state.
That even when given the opportunity to let him go, the crowds shouted “Crucify!” with reckless abandon.
In just about every religious system in the world, there is a huge distinction between those who are holy and those who are unholy, between the right and the wrong, between the godly and the ungodly.
But in Christianity, there is really no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. None is righteous, no, not one. (to quote St. Paul)
The crucifixion of Jesus, what we have come here to mark tonight, is not a very religious event. Which is to say, its not very spiritual. It is particularly and specifically rooted in what we might call “the real.” It happens in the midst of political jockeying for power, it is shocking and extremely violent, it threatens the established religious authorities, and it forces us to look upon the darkness of death.
During the time of Jesus, Jews did not crucify people – it was a Roman punishment. And yet, John portrays for us a strange back and forth between those in power. They certainly wanted the rabble-rouser taken care of, some wanted him dead, but no one wanted the responsibility.
And, as nearly all things in the church go, we could debate the responsibility of the death of Jesus. We can cherry-pick particular verses and try to pin it on someone or some people.
But the truth about the responsibility of Jesus’ crucifixion is what we were just singing: ’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.
I crucified thee.
It was me.
It was us.
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. We throw that around a lot in the church, and it might be the most important thing we can remember tonight.
We are the ungodly for whom Christ died.
Sure, had we been there in the crowds that day, we might not have shouted crucify, we might not have hammered the nails into his flesh, we might not have mocked him with his crown of thorns and purple robe.
But we all say “Crucify!” in our own way.
We make assumptions about people for no other reason than the color of their skin.
We judge people for the name of a politician on their bumper sticker.
We perpetuate systems of injustice in which more and more people suffer.
In the church today we have this strong desire to be inclusive, though we are often unsure as to what that really means. For to be truly inclusive is not just a matter of having different kinds of people in the building. It means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us.
Because even when we are able to ditch an old division between us a new one arises in its place. It is part of our sinful, and human, nature to do so.
This is no more ironic than outside the churches that have signs saying, “Hate has no place here.”
That a worthy claim but it is a lie.
All of us have hate in us, whether we like to admit it or not, and, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in a church affirms that that church hates people who hate!
Which leads us back to the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus puts to an end the religious categories that separate people from one another and unites us under a common banner. We might want that banner to be a declaration of love, or grace, or mercy. But the thing under which we are all included is actually our guilt.
We, all of us, are the ungodly.
And yet Christ dies, for us.
This is the great generosity of God who, knowing our hearts and minds and souls, dies for us anyway. It is a scandalous generosity because it is fundamentally counter to anything we would do.
To be honest, the crucifixion is a very ungodly thing for Jesus to do.
But that’s kind of the whole point.
It was about noon when Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
So they took him; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscriptions written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of the hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And he died.
What’s wrong with the world? I am. Amen.