Walking The Walk

1 John 1.1-2.2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faith and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Here, on the other side of Easter, I’ve been doing some thinking. On Easter we were singing the hymns, and praising the Lord; we were on the mountaintop. But here on the other side, though we still walk in the light, we have to confront reality. And as I’ve been thinking, and confronting, I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Our country is pretty messed up.

We can listen to the talking heads talk about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle, and all that sort of stuff. But I’m talking about brokenness on an entirely different level.

We are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity, that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. It is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

As a nation, we spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on programs of social uplift, which is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country: racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

            Something must change.

Pause: how do you feel about all that I just said? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are ready to do something about it? Are you clenching your fists because you’re angry that I’ve criticized our country and our culture?

            Most of what I just said did not come from me, but from another preacher, one by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things like what I just said that he was murdered.

martin_luther_king_jr-_and_lyndon_johnson_large

This past week saw the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. 5 decades have come and gone since he stood on the balcony of his motel and was gunned down. 5 decades of wondering whether his dream will ever become a reality. 5 decades spent holding up his quotes and remembering his speeches.

But what do we actually remember?

Perhaps the two most remembered passages from Dr. King’s great collection of speeches and addresses are his “I Have A Dream” speech which he offered in Washington DC, and the quote that I saw again and again this week: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It’s a great quote. And it fits perfectly with out scripture today: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

There’s a nice and easy sermon there in which you can use Dr. King’s witness, and his quote about darkness and light, to describe and point toward the kingdom of heaven. But that sermon would leave us walking out of here with our chins held high, and perhaps would encourage us to pat ourselves on the back.

But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote or one speech or even one issue. Just as Jesus’s life was about far more than just being kind to everyone.

Here in 2018 it’s hard to remember that a year before Dr. King was killed, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Contrary to what we see displayed every January when we celebrate his legacy, when King died he was not an icon of freedom and equality. In 1987 a poll revealed that almost 75% of Americans had a favorable rating of Dr. King, and Americans named him as the person they admired and respected more than any other person in the country’s history. And yet shortly before his death, in late 1966, 63% of Americans were vocally opposed to his words and work.

It’s hard to remember this, or even acknowledge it, because today everybody loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But it’s easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice (to the powers and principalities) in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and poverty. In fact he was shot the night after deliver a now infamous speech, not on securing the right to vote for black individuals, not on dismantling Jim Crow Laws, but on establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

We have so sanitized the legacy of his life that we forget he was once one of the most hated men in the country, we forget that he pushed an entire nation into places of discomfort; we forget that he was killed for challenging the way things were.

martin-luther-king-jr---mini-biography

Our sinfulness overwhelms our ability to remember and to be rational. We hear about godlessness and we immediately pull to our minds all those we believe who have fallen away, we encounter the challenges of God in scripture and immediately think about people in our lives who need to hear those words, and in so doing we forget that we are broken people, and that we need to hear those words as well.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. We continually participate in a world in which people are battered, broken, and bruised over and over again. We, to use the language from our hymnal, do terrible things, and we leave things undone that we should’ve changed.

We hear about a young black boy in California who was shot for holding a cell phone, and we think there’s nothing we can do about it and after a few weeks we stop thinking about it all together.

We see images of families being literally ripped apart as mothers and fathers are sent back to countries they fled from and are forced to leave children here to fend for themselves. And we feel bad, but if don’t see it happening to our families, or in our neighborhoods, we just move on.

We drive by people in our community standing on the street corners begging for financial assistance, pleading for food, yearning for help, and we roll up our windows and lock our doors.

But the light of the resurrection shines out of the darkness of the cross and the tomb! That light pushes us into realms of discomfort as we are forced to reckon with our on sin and say, “no more!”

Talk of sin makes us uncomfortable particularly because we are far too comfortable in our sins. We don’t want our boats rocked; we don’t want to wrestle with what needs to change. And yet we worship a God who was nailed to a cross for challenging the expectations of the world.

All of this, the church, the faith, they exist because they have been handed down to us. Just as they were handed to Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, it is what gave him the confidence to say and believe that something needed to change.

He walked the walk.

When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us. Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered. Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.

We are here on the Sunday after Easter, the banners are still raised high, the “hallelujahs” still feel fresh on our tongues, and we are getting back to our routine, whatever that is. And we are reminded here in the glory of Eastertide, in the words of 1 John, in the witness of Dr. King, that we all sin. If we say we are without sin, we are contradicted by the reality of sin.

However, we also receive forgiveness in the risen Lord, a forgiveness experienced by the very first disciples who struggled under the weight of a new world in which God gave life to the dead. They, the disciples, heard, saw, and touched the Word. And in so doing they began the delicate walk of faith in which they recognized their sin and their forgiveness together.

The sinfulness to which we are so bound is made present in our individual lives, in our communities, and in our institutions. No person, no gathering, no organization is without sin. Which makes it all the more vitally important to remember the truth of Jesus’ life, to remember his words of conviction, and to remember that he died for both the godly and the ungodly so that we, all of us, may not sin.

1-John-Web

One of my professors loved to tell a story about his roommate from college. They were going to school in South Carolina during the height of the Civil Rights movement when my professor’s friend decided to travel to Washington DC in order to participate in a Civil Rights March. Upon returning back to school, the friend relayed what had happened during the trip:

He described that everything was about as normal as you could imagine. he arrived, met up with the people he needed to, marched where he was supposed to, handed out flyers. By the time it was over he was exhausted while waiting for his plane to bring him home. As he sauntered onto the airplane, he sat down in my seat and, you’ll never believe this, he was sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr.

It was the craziest thing. He had gone all the way to DC and here he was, sitting on an airplane, next to his hero.

“So,” my professor asked, “what happened?!” Well, he got so nervous, and he was sweating, and fidgeting, and rehearsing what he might say, but there was a small problem. Martin Luther King Jr. was asleep. I mean what was he going to do? Wake up the leader of the Civil Rights movement? So he just waited, sitting there, staring at him, watching him sleep. After the flight had nearly reached its destination, he finally opened his eyes. “Dr. King I don’t know what to say. You are my hero. I just traveled all the way to DC to help march for Civil Rights, you are such an inspiration, I am so impressed with…” “Thank you. God Bless.” he interrupted, seemingly ending the conversation.

But the young man was undeterred. “Dr. King you don’t understand, you have changed my life, you have opened my eyes to the many opportunities that are not available to others… “I appreciate your kind words son.” Dr King interrupted again. However he was was not finished, “Dr. King, you don’t understand. My father is a racist. I left home because of him and his prejudice. He offered to pay for my college, but I have cut all ties with him. We have not exchanged a word in years because of his racial bigotry.” At this point Dr. King’s eyes widened, he turned his body to face this young college student and he reached out and grabbed him by the collar, “You have got to love your father. Whether hes racist or not, loving him is the only thing you can do.” And with that he let go, closed his eyes, and promptly fell back asleep.

All of us, particularly those of us with a self-righteous leaning, are sinners in need of God’s grace. From the racists to those who abandon their racist family members.

One of the harshest realities this side of Easter is that most of us believe we are without sin, and we deceive ourselves.

Here at the table God invites us into fellowship. At this place the truth is laid bare; we are sinners in need of grace. But God does not just invite me, or you… God invites all into community with God and with one another. If we walk alone, then we walk in darkness, but if we walk together with God, then we walk in the light. Amen.

Advertisements

Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Weekly Devotional Image

If there’s one thing that most us have in common, it’s a dislike for hearing about our own sinfulness. Most of us are fine with raising the sins of other people, in fact some of us actually delight in bringing up the failures of others, but when we’re asked to take a good hard look in the mirror we’d rather turn away.

My suspicion is that we enjoy the sins of others because it makes us feel like we have our lives together. When we hear about that couple whose relationship is on the rocks, it makes us feel like the last argument we had with our spouse wasn’t really that bad. When we receive word that one of our children’s classmates is repeating a grade, it makes us feel like even though we know we could do more at least our kid is moving on. When we turn on the television and witness scenes of celebrities entering rehab facilities, it makes our addictions look manageable and therefore unnecessary to confront.

what-is-sin

But then the Word of the Lord beckons our attention through the sands of time: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

The challenge with this, of course, is that we are not necessarily the ones meant to do the shouting! The prophet Isaiah was given this unenviable task, and today we are the ones meant to receive this, and therefore the Lord’s, condemnation.

How often have we ignored our own sins while identifying the sins of others? How often have we continued down a path of pain and shame knowing full and well the results of our actions? How often have we heard a challenging word in Church only to think about who else it might apply to instead of ourselves?

The season of Lent, which we enter into on Ash Wednesday, is no easy thing. We embark on this journey through a strange season every year as a way to stand before the mirror of truth and see who we really are. It is a time of repentance for what we’ve done, and a time for listening about how God is calling us out of the pit of our sin. It is the liturgy (ie. work of the people) designed to give us the strength to hear about our rebellion, and do something about it.

Devotional – Psalm 50.3

Devotional:

Psalm 50.3

Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.

Weekly Devotional Image

During the Super Bowl on Sunday, there was a commercial for Dodge Ram trucks. The advertisement began in darkness, and then text appeared on the screen announcing that the following words were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. exactly fifty years ago to the day. The audio playback started, while the viewers witnessed a collage of pure Americana: construction workers, a student studying, a man doing push ups, and a cattle rancher all interposed with quick shots of a Dodge truck driving through mud. All the while you could hear Dr. King in the background saying these words:

“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know [Einstein’s] theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

The recording was taken from one of Dr. King’s final sermons prior to his assassination. And, inexplicably, the advertisers failed to recognize, that part of King’s sermon [not quoted in the ad] was about the evils of advertising. Dr. King said:

“The presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers… you know those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. They have a way of saying things that get you in a bind: ‘In order to be a man of distinction you must drink this whisky’ ‘in order to make your neighbors envious you must drive this type of car’ ‘in order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume’ and before you know it your just buying this stuff… And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit.”

Even from beyond the grave, Dr. King will not remain silent about the injustices and tragedies of the world. His words are still a rallying cry for those who wish to see God’s vision made into a reality. But some, with untold power, continue to manipulate his words for their own gain.

rammlk2-800x430

The Psalmist says, “Our God comes and does not keep silence.” The Word from the Lord blasts forth from the pages of our bibles, like the words of Dr. King’s sermon, and they beckon us to open our eyes to the truth. We live in a world that is still terribly broken and in need of divine healing. The marginalized are being pushed even further into the margins while the powers and principalities rule with an iron fist.

God will not keep silence, and neither should we.

 

You can read more about the Dodge Ram Commercial controversy here: MLK Jr. Sermon Used In A Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial Draws Backlash.

Advent Begins In The Dark

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. These is no one who calls on your name, or attempters to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent begins in the dark. And, of course, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this strange beginning, not only to a season, but also to a new year in the life of the church. After all, our sanctuary has changed. Gone are the white sheets of Christ the King Sunday, tucked away are the green banners from Ordinary Time. Today is a new day in the life of the church and in each of our lives. Today is a day of purple and blue, of royalty and repentance; today we begin in the dark.

For many churches in many places, Advent is filled with joy and hope. Pastors sprinkle their sermons with tidings of good cheer, and wishes of merry Christmases. The sentiment of the season is one of smiles, laughter, and bright light.

            But Isaiah speaks a different word.

From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

Although the life and time of Isaiah differs from ours in tremendous ways, there are similarities. We know, like Isaiah, that our reliance on a massive political accumulation of power, rather than a pursuit of love and divine justice, has brought us everlasting turmoil. We know, like Isaiah, that our culture has less to do with the peace of God and more to do with individual hopes and ambitions. We know, like Isaiah, the temptation to throw everything into violent forms of power while ignoring the people tasked with doing such.

e2055566bd428e7b78afeb573b09d0e3--advent-candles-beautiful-christmas

From the dark place of reflection, we read Isaiah’s words about God tearing open the heavens and shaking the foundations of the earth, but when we try to imagine it in our minds we don’t think of the new heaven and the new earth of revelation. Instead, we have visions of devastating destruction like floods, earthquakes, and perhaps even nuclear war.

During Advent we might want our God to look and act more like the chubby man who slides down the chimney with gifts, but Isaiah presents us with an image of God as angry and silent.

And that is the tension of this season. The words from the prophet are even harder to swallow for those of us who have already put up the tree, who have hung all the lights, who have turned our radio stations to the never-ending array of Christmas tunes. But Advent has always held the tension of God’s judgment with God’s promise.

            We have all become like one who is unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We have sinned, and God has moved away from us.

Last week, in our Sunday School class, we wrestled with the always difficult subject of forgiveness. We talked about actions that feel unforgiveable and how difficult it is for us to wrap our heads around the fact that God’s love is for all people, no matter what. And in the midst of the discussion, someone from our church mentioned that beyond individual forgiveness, it might be even harder to forgive entire groups of people for terrible atrocities. He probed us to think about Germany and Japan, to ponder the devastation waded against nation by nation. How can we forgive those kinds of things?

Perhaps, the only way to get to a place of offering forgiveness, the only way to take steps out of the darkness that marks the beginning of Advent, is recognizing our wrongs as well.

A couple weeks ago I heard a story on the radio that has haunted me ever since. As a teenager in 1955, Paul Zimmer was assigned by the military to serve at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. He was there to witness the testing of atomic bombs. He thought it might be a cool assignment, or at the very least, it would produce stories that might be a good way to pick up girls in the future. He spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and chumming it up with the other young men, but every couple days he and the others would be convoyed in the middle of the night and marched into the desert.

There they would find long thin trenches dug into the earth like scars from a giant. They wore steel helmets, with little else, and they would wait.

And now I’ll use his words: “I never became fearful until I heard the countdown over the loud speaker. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash. It was bright enough, that even with my eyes closed, I could still see the bones in my hands over my eyes. The shockwave crashed over the trenches and we were then told to open our eyes and watch. We saw the mushroom cloud, with strange purples and blues billowing into the sky above.”

“I saw 8 atomic blasts in total, each of different sizes and deployments. Sometimes the shockwave was so powerful that the walls of the trench would cave in and we struggled to climb out of the grave dug into the earth. And, again and again, we were given the all clear and marched forward into the blast area to wear witness. Bearing witness seemed to be the entire reason we were there.”

“One bomb was three times the size of the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and when we walked forward the air was filled with the stench of ozone, small bushes and trees had evaporated into thin air, and small animals were scattered on the edge of the blast radius whimpering in pain. We walked forward and we passed crumpled vehicles and turrets, mannequins with melted faces, and mangled test animals. No one ever asked us to write a report, nor did anyone ever ask what we saw, because (it turns out) they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men responded to an atomic blast.”

img_3715

Over the years I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last living people in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. And now, in my late years, when I think about my experience, I feel it is my responsibility to witness to the sights and the sounds that still ring in my head even today. I feel it is my duty to remember the reckless absurdity of it all, the being buried alive, the walking past death and decay, and the waking up to do it all over again.

We live in a world still shrinking under the threat of nuclear war. Tweets and temptations to push the button ring out across the globe. And while we want our Advent season to be nice and pretty and light, there is a real risk to maintaining the lives that we have grown so comfortable with.

Zimmer ended his story by saying this: “We keep threatening to release these bombs, and I suspect that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, but I have not.”

(For more on Zimmer’s story: Secret Information)

Advent jolts us out of Ordinary time, where we’ve gone all over the map (so to speak). Isaiah speaks to us on this day with invasive news that it’s time to repent, and to think about fresh possibilities. That’s a tough thing to swallow these days, particularly when we are more moved by feeling good than by being good.

Right? I mean how many of us will fill that empty space under the tree with presents in hopes that those gifts will fill the holes we feel in our souls? How many of us are so consumed by a desire to judge that we forget the need to reflect? How many of us are actually stuck in the darkness of Advent without any of the light of Christ?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to hear about nuclear explosions at this, the most wonderful time of the year. We want something pretty and something happy. But I think Paul Zimmer’s witness is as prophetic as Isaiah’s. The hope of Christmas has not looked away from the darkness but straight into it. That, after all, is the message of the incarnation. God comes to us in flesh, in the brokenness of the world, to redeem the world.

But we’re not there yet.

As Christians, though we move through the liturgical calendar every year, we are stuck in Advent. We live in the darkness of Advent, between the first arrival of God’s Son in Bethlehem and the final arrival of God’s Son in the New Heaven and the New Earth. We’re stuck in the tension between the ways things are and the way they ought to be, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

But there is hope in this strange Advent time and it comes from an unexpected place. If we put our trust in princes, or politicians, or even plutonium, we will be disappointed. We cannot receive lasting comfort from this broken world of ours where it feels like the end is always a buttonbush away. Our hope and comfort must come from another place, a place beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend, a place of ultimate divine humiliation and divine exultation, a place that is both beginning and end, a place that isn’t even a place: God.

Hope in God is a strange, vexing, and transformative thing. Hope in God is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended. Hope in God comes when we are able to look in the mirror, and say from the depth of our being, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner.” Hope in God comes when we realize that God is always the light in the darkness, but without the darkness we cannot see the light.

The good news we anticipate on Christmas will come, it will be brighter than any atomic blast and it will fundamentally change everything about the world. God will come again and tear open the heavens. God will reorient the world in such a way that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s justice will rain down like waters. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. God will destroy evil forever.

As Christians, yes, we sit in the shadow of the cross and in the darkness of Advent. But we also know the end of the story, we know that greater things are still to come. We know that only God can shake the foundations of the earth. We know that hope in God is unlike anything else in existence. We know all of this because we know that the promise in Mary’s womb comes to fruition in the empty tomb. Amen.

Advent

On This Generation

But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I was left to record by myself as half of the team from Crackers & Grape Juice were moving to new appointments in the United Methodist Church and we couldn’t get our act together. It is easily our worst episode because we thrive on dialogues and not monologues, so have mercy. The readings include Genesis 24, Zechariah 9, Romans 7, and Matthew 11. If you want to learn more about worshipping the Lord in marriage, humility in leadership, sin, and our selfish generation you can check out the episode here: Like Children In The Marketplace.

As always, if you enjoy the podcast please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, it helps us and it helps others discover the podcast. You can find out more about both of our podcasts at our website.

triumphal-entry

On Using Bad Words In Church

Romans 6.1-11

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

What’s the worst word you can imagine hearing from the pulpit? In a world where you can get away with saying and doing just about anything, is the church still a sacred place untainted by the desires of the world? There are plenty of strange and difficult and downright awful stories from scripture that we can read from the lectern, but don’t you think the pulpit should remain nice and clean?

During the season of Lent, we confront our finitude, our sinfulness, and our total dependence on the Lord. It is a tough time for us comfortable Christians, because these are exactly the types of things that many of us would rather avoid.

Gone are the days when we could expect to hear about sin and be challenged and convicted out of it. Gone are the days when we could affirm our finite lives without needing the stark reminder of ashes on our foreheads once a year.

Today, God has been reduced to a bumper-stickered and hallmarked version of love. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Today, church is not the place for judgment and for talk about sin. Regardless of their primacy in scripture, we would all be happier if we could avoid them.

The same holds true for foul language.

Right?

ec5f5b7006dc9af1fb22b9c190f5bcbb_social-etiquettepptx-on-emaze-swear-words-clipart_846-422

This is definitely not the place for someone like me to stand in front of people like you and use words that are forbidden from the radio and are relegated to rated-R movies.

As I heard someone say recently, “Preacher, there are just some things you don’t talk about it church.”

There is a seemingly endless list of things not to talk about in church; things like politics, abortion, divorce, war, sex, taxes, just to name a few. But foul language, language that results in soap-in-the-mouth discipline, is a particularly poignant thing to avoid in church.

And I have a friend in ministry who has completely ignored this accepted fact.

He loves to use foul language from the pulpit. Whether it’s the Christmas Eve sermon and the church is filled with young families who only show up for one worship service a year, or an Ash Wednesday service where only the die-hard Christians come out, he’s known for his colorful language. He’ll tell you that he uses those particular words in order to enhance the sermon in such a way that it will become more memorable and hit closer to home.

And a lot of the people at his church can’t stand it.

“Why does he feel like he has to resort to such awful language?” “The church deserves better than this.” “Does he talk to his mother that way?”

And, I think, they have a point. When the language used becomes more memorable or more important than what is being proclaimed, something has fallen a part. For instance: His recent Ash Wednesday sermon was titled “God Doesn’t Give A @#$%” I read it and listened to it online, it was phenomenal. The theology and the proclamation were remarkably faithful to the One who is faithful to us. But a few of the people from the church called me afterward and couldn’t even begin to express what the sermon was about at all; they were still hung up on the title.

However, there is a value to using some bad words in church.

During the season of Lent, this time after Epiphany but before Easter, there is a specific word that we avoid at all costs. It’s really bad. The word is… well, I’m not supposed to say it. Um, how can I do this…

Okay, there’s this great song by Ray Stevens called the Mississippi Squirrel Revival, maybe you’ve heard it, and part of it goes like this: The day the squirrel went berserk // In the First Self-Righteous Church // In the sleepy little town of Pascagoula // It was a fight for survival // That broke out in revival // They were jumpin’ pews and shoutin’ @#$%^&*!”

You know the word I’m talking about? You might not have even noticed it, but we have not said the “H” word in worship since before Ash Wednesday. It has not been read from the lectern, it has not been hidden in one of the verses from our hymns, and I certainly haven’t used it from the pulpit.

We purposely avoid the word during Lent so that when we shout it out on Easter it will mean all that much more. We specifically deprive ourselves of this important and powerful word to create a longing for the realization of all that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus promises to us and to the world.

And there’s another bad “H” word that we need to talk about: Hell.

I don’t mean the place filled with fire and a red-toned, frighteningly tall, horned figure with a trident and a bifurcated tail. I mean using “hell” as an expression.

Paul writes: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Now, what I’m about to say will probably get me in trouble, but so be it. That little ending, the “by no means” just doesn’t cut it. In Greek the expression is “me genotio” and it is way more emphatic than “by no means.” Some translations have it as “God forbid” or “Definitely not” but even both of those miss the mark.

37475703

In what we read last week, Paul wrote: “When sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And it’s as if Paul knew that people would hear those words and say, “Dude, that’s awesome! If grace abounds all the more when sin increases, then lets keep the sins rolling!”

And here is Paul’s response: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

Our lives have changed forever. We can’t just retreat to the ways of the past because grace abounds. God in Christ has made in us a new creation! The gift of God in Christ on the cross was, and is, such that we are forever freed from the tyranny of sin and death. Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

But that’s not the last bad word we’re going to talk about today. No, we still need to talk about “Sin” and “Death.” Perhaps two of the worst words that can ever be used in church. And you can tell they’re bad word precisely because of how rarely they are used in a place like this.

We need to talk about these bad words, not because they are normal parts of human experience, but because they are false powers that rule over us. That’s how Paul understood them: Sin reigns, Death has dominion.

You need only turn on the television for five minutes in the evening to see how true this really is: The nighty News hour is filled to the brim with the failures and faults and sins of other people; The Republican Party failed to procure their dream for American Healthcare. Left Wing activists went on a violent strike in another major city. Augusta County citizen receives life sentence for horrible crime. North Korea has another failed missile test but they are getting closer to developing their own weapons of mass destruction. The market fluctuated with each tweet from our president. Test scores have fallen in local school leading to speculation that it will close… All of them are negative.

And then when they go to a commercial break we are bombarded by products designed to make us believe that we can and will live forever; Use this cream and your wrinkles will disappear. Invest in this company and you will never have to worry about money. Go on this vacation and you will feel happy and healthy like the people running on the beach or tanning by the pool.

We live under the tyranny of sin and death. But Paul says this should not be so!

Ro6

We who have been baptized into Christ have been crucified with Christ. Our sinful selves are put to death on the Cross so that we will no longer be slaves to the bad words of Sin and Death.

Long ago, we would have known this without Paul having to remind us. Baptisms, long ago, were all about death. That’s where the Baptists beat us today, I’m sorry to say. When the Baptists baptize, they fully submerge people under water. And, depending on the faithfulness of the pastor, the soon-to-be-new Christian might be held under for quite a long time.

You would’ve missed the baptism to death if you were with us in Alexandria when Elijah was baptized. No, we didn’t hold him under a tub of water to embody the death to sin. No, we didn’t give him some old and tattered gown to wear. Elijah looked perfect in his little khakis, and button-up shirt, and bow-tie, and mustard-colored cardigan. Elijah was sprinkled with water, and the perfectly portioned amount of holy oil was smeared in the shape of the cross on his forehead. And, he was carried out to the congregation and held up high by the same preacher who curses too much.

We miss the death to sin in our baptisms. But we have a member of our lectionary bible study who really gets it. Judy had avoided church for decades before God grabbed her by the heart and said, “Follow me.” She brought her questions and her doubts to her preacher, and after a time she felt her heart strangely warmed and felt moved to be baptized.

Unlike babes in the United Methodist Church, Judy marched up to the giant baptismal font and prepared to jump into the all-too-cold water. And outside, through the multicolored stained glass windows, a thunderstorm was brewing.

Judy slowly descended into the water, and with cracks of thunder in the distance the preacher plunged her into the depths of death to sin. I like to imagine that if she opened her eyes underwater, even for the briefest of moments, she would have seen a flash of lighting that illuminated the entire congregation. The whole moment felt as if the rule of Sin and Death, the dominion of the devil himself, was making one final dash to keep her under their control. But alas, the grace of Jesus Christ abounded all the more, and she arose from the water dead to sin and death.

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? HELL NO!

God has changed us! Not just through the waters of our baptisms, not just through the bread that we break and the cup from which we drink, but also through the death of Jesus on the cross. It changes everything! This gift transforms our very lives to the point that we should feel compelled not to fall back into the old ways, to the old self, ruled by Sin and Death.

But we know the truth: we do fall back. We know that those who are sent to prison for horrible crimes have an all too high likelihood of returning one day. We know that those caught in adultery tend to habitually cheat for the rest of their lives. We know that even the strongest member of an AA group can fall off the wagon.

We know that we fall back.

We say “never again” to so many thing only to have them come right back around. We say never again to the anger, to the cigarette, to the bottle, to the cheating, to the lying, to the hatred, to the racism, to the homophobia, to the elitism, to the narcissism, to defeatism, to a great number of things.

            They never stop.

            The fact that they never stop is evidence of the power of Sin in this world, which reigns in Death.

But our lives have been changed! God has wiped away the old self and clothed us with the new. God washed away our insecurities and insufficiencies and said, “My grace is enough.” God was nailed to the hard wood of the cross to die a death that we might die in our baptism. God was raised from the dead as we were brought forth from the water to live a resurrected and holy life.

            The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So we also must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO! Amen.

Stuck In The Bushes

Romans 5.12-21

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned – sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in the life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I take a lot of pride in my ability to communicate with people of different age groups. On any given week I will spend time explaining theology to five year olds in our preschool, fifteen year olds in our youth group, 50 year olds in our bible study, and then the rest of you on Sunday morning. It is definitely a challenge taking ideas from the likes of Paul and proclaiming them in a way that can be appreciated for the here and now for the young and old.

But sometimes, I fail.

Like the time I tried to address the moral and ethical dilemmas of Capital Punishment to our youth group one night, to the times I’ve tried to proclaim the strange complexity of confronting our finitude on Ash Wednesday to our preschoolers, to the times I’ve told some of our much older adults that one must have the faith of a child to inherit the kingdom of God.

Communicating the gospel, sharing the Good News, is a challenge, and I definitely failed once when we were on our mission trip to West Virginia a couple summers back. Picture it, if you can: It is hotter than blazes outside, and I’m stuck in a tiny kitchen surrounded by teenagers who would rather be instagramming and snap chatting one another than cleaning a floor or painting a ceiling. And it was silent.

So I did what I do: I started asking questions…

“What’s your favorite story from the bible?”

One of our boys immediately said something about David defeating Goliath. The Davidic story will forever rest in the hearts of prepubescent boys who struggle with how rapidly the girls are growing while they remain the same.

A boy from another church said, “Well, I kinda like the one about, you know, Jesus feeding people?” while saliva poured out of his mouth as he stared at the cooler in the corner filled with our lunches.

A girl from a different church said, “I’ve always been rather captivated by Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee.” To which I made a mental note to bring this up with her youth group later in the evening. No sensible teenage girl should be thinking about water turning into wine, and certainly not when Jesus has anything to do with it.

We went on and on, and then it was my turn to answer. “Well” I said, “It’s not my favorite story, but I’ve always loved this little detail at the beginning of the bible, in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden with a choice. They could choose to live in perfect harmony with God and God’s creation, with each other, free from sin and free from death. But Adam and Eve made the wrong choice, they wanted to be like God, and as soon as they tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked.

“But here’s the part that gets me every time. Almost as soon as they sin, they heard the sound of God walking in the garden and they both sprinted for the bushes. But God called out, ‘Where are you Adam? Where are you Eve?’ After waiting for a few moments, Adam popped his little head out of the bushes, and told God that he was hiding because he was naked and afraid.”

To which God said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’

“Isn’t that hilarious?” – The teenagers had all stopped working while I was sharing the story, and now they were all staring at me with eyebrows askew. I could hear the paint dripping off their brushes onto the floor as if even the crickets were too concerned to chirp. One of the boys finally broke the silence to say, “Um… I don’t think it’s very funny. If I were naked and God came looking for me, I’d run for the bushes too!”

Do we know this old, old, story? Do we know what sin is? Do we know what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

What kind of stories and habits and beliefs do we want to pass on to the coming generations? I feel like I am forever hearing about the good ol’ days when “we knew our bibles” and “we would’ve gone to school with snow like this when I was a kid” and “we entertained ourselves with our imaginations and not a screen in our pockets.”

Do we wish that things could go back to the way they were? Are we worried about the future that we are handing to our children?

We can talk and talk about what we want to pass on, what we hope to engender, but if we don’t know our story, if we don’t know where we came from, how in the world can we even hope to take a step in the right direction?

tumblr_nfzluvor3q1sk7sreo1_500

Just as sin came into the world through one man… Paul assumes that we know the story, that we know the details of the Garden. He does not waste lines in his letter rehashing the characters and the questions, he gets right to the point: Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve. They, and therefore we, broke the covenant with God. The transition from God’s rule to the rule of sin and death came into the world because of our rebellious and disobedient desires.

This is our condition. There is no going back. Fear and shame and anger and disappointment are our lives. We are, in a sense, stuck in the bushes for good, hoping that God will not come looking for us.

We are in the bushes. And Lent is a great time to ask the question: Why? Which of the commandments have we broken? Did we work on the Sabbath? Have we hated our mothers or our fathers? Did we covet something that did not belong to us? An object, a job, or God forbid, a person?

How would we respond if we heard God walking toward us in the middle of our sin? We, like Adam and like that boy on the mission trip, would run for the bushes.

Paul assumes that we know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden because it is OUR story! Adam’s sin is our sin, and it not only divided us from God, but also brought death into the world, which spread like a disease. This is Paul’s point, and he says it in these few verses over and over again.

We are trapped in sin and death and we are stuck in the bushes. That’s the story of the Garden. Is this what we want to pass on?

Truly I tell you, we cannot know who we are to be, if we do not know our story. This inexhaustible, unexplainable, indescribable moment from the beginning is who we are. It is the story of how the life of order fell into disorder. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story.

Adam brought the entirety of humanity down, down to the depths of death and destruction. Jesus, however, is the new way who is able to create a new humanity.

The promise of a good and remade and hopeful future comes from the old story that is forever new. The story of our death, and then the death that freed us from sin and death.

In Jesus Christ our stories are made new; God, as the author of salvation, takes up the pen and starts a new chapter through the life, death, and resurrection of his son. This is the story that those who are coming, the one who will follow us, need to hear. This is the story we need to share. We need to pray for the courage to shout this story from the rooftops as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

The only way to victory, the way to upend what was done in the Garden, is through the cross. We might think of a different way, a more efficient and less taxing way, but the way of the cross is the WAY that Christ defeated death.

08687e2b32757ff3722238f19cd727cd

But this is not an easy story to tell. The message and value of the cross comes with a cost. It is difficult, it is selfless, and frankly it is un-American. Today, we would rather surround the young with lessons that teach very different values: get the job, earn as much as you can, find the right spouse, buy the car, lose the weight, invest in the right companies, bring 2.5 children into the world, purchase the perfect house, and you will be free and life will be perfect.

That’s the story we tell. And it’s a lie! It’s all a lie! None of these things can give life. They cannot give us the identity and purpose and hope we so desire. The job will change, the money will disappear, the spouse will grow old, the body will too, the companies will falter, the car will rust, the children will not listen; Sin and Death corrupt them all.

But there is nevertheless Good News, there is a way out of the bondage that was brought into the world by the one we call Adam. We are freed through the one we call Christ.

We are stuck in the bushes of our own sin and shame. But Christ comes to us in the Garden of our own demise without a question, but a call. Jesus does not ask us who told us we were sinning, Jesus says follow me. Follow me to Galilee, follow me to Gethsemane, follow me to Calvary.

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Sin has increased in this world and in our lives, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ has abounded all the more.

The story, our story, began in the Garden, but it did not end there. It continued through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, weaved through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph. It rose through the power of David and Solomon, and fell through the failure of God’s people worshipping idols. It danced through the prophets who remained faithful to the Lord, it endured droughts and famines, it saw suffering and sadness. It connected the lives of the powerful with the powerless, it brought down the high and lifted up the lowly.

It was born again in a manger in a small town called Bethlehem; it trudged through the towns of Galilee and sailed over the sea. It walked through the streets of Jerusalem and turned over the tables at the Temple. It was dragged before the council and the ruling elite. It was marched up to a hill and nailed to a cross. It was silent in a tomb for three days. And it broke free from the chains of sin and death.

That is the story. It is a story worth telling over and over again; because in it we discover who we are and whose we are. In it we see ourselves stuck in the bushes being beckoned by Jesus to follow him. And in it we realize that it is not just a story, nor even our story, but THE story. Amen.

 

romans_feature-01