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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 32.5

Devotional:

Psalm 32.5

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

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I want you to take both hands and squeeze them into fists as tightly as possible (seriously). They need to be tight enough that you actually feel strained as you do so. Keep them squeezed and think about something you’ve done recently that could be qualified as a sin. It could be as simple as getting really frustrated when that person cut you off at the grocery store for the line marked “Ten Items Or Less” and it was clear that they had at least 40 items in their cart; or the anger you experienced when your child brought home that less-than-stellar report card; or the shame you felt when you caught yourself flirting with someone while you were currently in a relationship with someone else. Just think of a recent sin.

Now: Quickly release the tension in your left hand. But don’t let go with your right; keep that one tight. You’ll notice that your left hand might have a little tingling sensation from being held tightly for a few moments, but otherwise it should feel relatively normal.

Yet, the longer you continue to hold your right hand clenched in a fist, the more it will start to hurt. At first it was fine, maybe even comfortable, but now you can feel the little aches in all the tiny muscles, you can even feel the blood struggling to flow where it needs to go.

But don’t let go.

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Think about that same sin again. What did you do with it? Did you let it percolate and grow into something much bigger? Did you confess your sin to the Lord? Did you share your struggle with anyone else and ask for help?

Keep that right hand tight for just a little bit longer.

And now release the tension slowly.

It’s going to hurt. As your fingers gradually stretch back out you will feel stabs of pain in the muscles as your hand regains it’s feeling. And, once you finally flex them all the way out, they’ll probably start curling back into a fist without you trying to do so.

Sin is like our clenched fists. We all sin, every single one of us. From the four-year-old preschool student, to the life-long Sunday school teacher, to the Mom or Dad just trying to make sure the kids have their lunches ready before they leave for school. We all sin.

We can, like our left hand, release the tension of our sins quickly. In the moment we can recognize where we have fallen short of God’s glory and, as the psalmist puts it, we can confess and repent of our transgressions to the Lord and be forgiven. However, most of us are more likely to treat our sins the way we treated our right hand; we let them simmer and boil for far too long so that by the time we actually confess it hurts all the more, and the more likely we are to descend back into that kind of behavior.

The Lord will forgive our sins, but we have to confess them first.

 

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to you neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

 

We announced this sermon series a couple months back, and ever since then a number of you have expressed your excitement about the possibility of confronting these Christianisms. Whether you were in the middle of suffering and someone said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or a friend tried to explain how your struggles were given to you by the Lord because “everything happens for a reason” or any number of situations, these dumb things that Christians say are things all of us have heard.

However, some of you have also expressed your concern about today’s statement, the last one in the series, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It sounds so right doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

We can all agree that Christians say a lot of dumb things, but this is a good thing to say, right?

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In my experience, when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually referring to homosexuality. For many, it is a kind and Christian way to say, “I love my gay friends, but I hate that they’re gay.” In this post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, it is a way for some of us to cover our true feelings while appearing congenial toward those whom we disagree with about sexuality.

Though recently, when I’ve heard people say it they are now using it with regard to the realm of politics. It is amazing how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about homosexuality has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country. “Well, I know she voted for that traitor Hillary Clinton, but I love her anyway.” Or “Donald Trump is ruining our country, but I love him anyway.” “I love my brother, but he can be a bleeding liberal.” “I love my sister, but she’s so conservative she’s off the political spectrum.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty hard to hate another’s sin, without harming the sinner.

What is sin? We don’t talk about it anymore. Pastors like me would rather talk about God’s loving nature, than God’s judgment. We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors, than to tell you to tell your neighbor they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking to us today.

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

We’re afraid of sin. And not sin as a behavior; we’re afraid to talk about it because it makes us, and our congregations, uncomfortable. I hear again and again that people don’t want to leave church feeling miserable about their lives and their behavior, so preachers like me water down the gospel and we avoid even mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin. We preachers, and you Christians, can’t handle the topic of sin like we once could.

But what is it?

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

And here’s the thing: We all do it. All of us sin. From the guy standing before you in a white robe, to the decades long Sunday School teacher, to the child drawing on his bulletin, to the person in the pew across the aisle, to you. We are all sinners.

We think, say, and do things we should not. And we fail to think, say, and do things we should.

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Love the sinner. Of course we are supposed to love the sinner. Jesus did it all the time. Most of his ministry was about loving sinners. The problem is that Jesus does not call his disciples to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

This is an important difference. The difference being the starting point. If we say we are going to love sinners, we will view other people more like sinners and less like neighbors. It automatically puts us into a place of judgment where we are the righteous, and they are not.

Loving sinners also furthers the problematic identity problem where by we understand and identify others by their mistakes. We label people by their sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, and even regardless of frequency, we still call people things like cheaters, adulterers, and liars.

Or, to put it another way: Instead of seeing our neighbors as our neighbors, we judge them and identify them by which political candidate’s name was on a sign in their front yard.

A while back one of my friends was starting a new job fresh out of college. He was understandably nervous when he entered the office building for the first time and made his way to a cubicle near the corner of the room. He quietly unloaded his boxes of pertinent materials onto his desk and set up pictures of his family and friends while other employees walked idly by.

There were signs that someone had used the cubicle before him: an accidental scratch across the desk, a piece of discarded paper in the trashcan, and finger smudges on the computer monitor. But other than that, the cubicle was empty.

He worked his first full day under the weight of focus, though a few people came by to introduce themselves. And when it was time to go home he packed his bag and opened the top drawer to grab his pen when he noticed a post-it note near the back. Without thinking much about it, he grabbed it and read three big words: DO NOT TRUST. And underneath those words were the names of five people from the office.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard he tried to forget the note, no matter how hard he tried to trust the people in spite of what he read, his entire perspective had been reshaped by those three words.

The same happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. We should always try to love them, but we can love them even more if we see them first as our brothers and sisters and less as sinners in our midst.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We’re good at seeing the sin in others. That’s what Facebook is for! So we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

Jesus used this expression because he knew that the disciples would struggle with the tendency to judge others. So instead of loving the sinner, perhaps it’s better to say “I am a sinner, and I ‘m trying love my neighbor.”

But we still have to face the end, “hate the sin.”

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. Jesus routinely gathered with them to do what we will do in a few minutes, he broke bread with them. Jesus gave him the most precious gift he had to offer, his time. And then he told them to follow him.

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

Jesus, instead, offered forgiveness.

He encountered all kinds of people who were defined by their choices, and he saw them for who they were in spite of their sins. His love was such that it knew no bounds. It was enough.

            But we are not like Jesus. We fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We have logs in our eyes and say things like, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

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There was a man who died, and upon his death he arrived at the pearly gates in heaven. He looked all around and soaked up the sights of the fluffy clouds and he was so excited to see people just on the other side of the gate that he had missed for so long. He wanted to run straight to them but there was a line leading up to St. Peter. So the man got in line and waited patiently for his turn.

He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but as he got closer he couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversations between St. Peter and the soon to be residents of heaven. “Oh you did so much for that soup kitchen!” “You’re the one who read scripture out loud in church every week, very good, very good.” And so on. But when the man’s turn came, St. Peter looked down in the Book of Life and then said, “Yeah you were a believer, but you skipped the ‘not being a jerk about it’ part.”

Saying, and living by, “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us jerks. It means the log in our eye is so large that we are unable from seeing others as brothers and sisters. It means that our own sinfulness blinds us from truly loving.

There is sin in this world. People will make the wrong choice, they will choose evil. We will make sinful decisions; we will avoid doing the things we know we should do. But instead of rallying together and focusing on all the sins and problems of other people, instead of flocking to the Internet and like-minded dinner parties to declare the sins of the other, we all need to take a good hard look in the mirror. We need to recognize the log in our own eyes before we dare point out the speck in another.

Because Jesus, looks right into our hearts and says “I love you, log and all.”

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of, God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees our self-righteousness and indignation and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God sees the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God knows the ways we lie to our spouses and our children, God witnesses the depth of our depravity and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God was there with us in the voting booth, God hears the sighs we utter in response to someone on the other side of the political aisle, God knows how we really feel and says, “I love you, log and all.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” We say it. We read it. We might even live by it. But we should just stop with the word “love.”

Love.

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Not Hallmark love. Not Valentine’s Day love. But love like Jesus. That might be good enough. Because loving like Jesus does not mean turning away from the sinners in our midst. It means walking up to a crowd of people who are about to do something terrible and saying, “Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!”

It means encountering the beauty of the Lord and responding with the truest words we can ever say: “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.”

It means being humble enough to seek out those whom we have wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

It means caring for those on the margins regardless of the decisions they’ve made or the sins they’ve committed.

It means reaching out to the people who we disagree with most not to change their mind, but to offer them the same thing Jesus offer us, time.

So the next time we say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Let’s just stop with love. Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Devotional:

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.

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Sin is an ugly word. It is an ugly word because it makes us uncomfortable. When I encounter people in my life who no longer attend church, they often describe their reasoning as “church was only about sin” or “I left every week feeling miserable.” Sin is an ugly word.

It is true that in some churches sin is the focus of nearly everything. But in Mainline Protestant Christianity, we avoid even mentioning sin because of its ugliness. We preachers would rather talk about God’s loving nature than God’s judgment. We would rather tell our people to love their neighbors as themselves than to tell their neighbors that they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard passages about condemnation than reflect on how they are still speaking directly to us even today.

And yet, God speaks through Isaiah to say, “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.”

There are definitely bad ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. Logging on to Facebook in order to belittle the other for their differing political or social opinion might sound like a blaring trumpet blast, but it accomplishes nothing good. Sending anonymous letters or notes to people because of their former lifestyles might feel like “not holding back” but it usually just leaves them hurt and afraid. Judging others from afar with our like-minded peers might feel like “announcing their rebellion” but it will just harden our hearts.

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However, there are good ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. First, we must remember that we too are sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory. Second, we can only speak the truth of another’s sin in love, which is to say, we need to be in relationship with the person to such a degree that they can hear what we have to say without blowing it off. Third, we can only “announce rebellion” if we are willing to help the person to move out of their sinfulness; we cannot simply declare their sin like a trumpet blast unless we are willing to do the hard work of helping them out of it. And finally, we can only announce another person’s sins if we are prepared to hear our sins as well.

The existence of the church is a response to our need to hear about our sinfulness. We gather together to hear the Word so that we might be transformed into God’s people. But this cannot happen if we are more concerned with transforming others, than with transforming ourselves. We cannot announce the sins of another, unless we can first say “Have mercy on me O Lord, for I am a sinner.”

So shout out, and lift up your voices like a trumpet. But beware, for the trumpet will blow in your direction as well.

God, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Fourth of July

Today our nation celebrates the Fourth of July. Untold sums of people will adorn themselves in red, white, and blue to celebrate the freedoms we hold so dear. It is one of those rare days that entire communities, though regularly separated over things like race and socioeconomic status, will join together to remember how our country got started.

As a Christian, and particularly as a pastor, I often wonder about the celebration of the Fourth of July and what it says about the church. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, has wrestled with it as well. This is what he has to say about this holiday in his sermon titled, “God and the Fourth of July” from his book Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries.

Hauerwas

“For Christians, the Fourth of July is not our day. It is not “not our day” because Christians must oppose nationalism, though we should. It is not “not our day” because America is an imperial power whose use of the military is increasingly indiscriminate and disproportionate, though as Christians committed to peace that is a development we must oppose. The fourth is not a problem for us because of what we are against; it is a problem because our desires have been formed by our Lord. We are simply so consumed by the consummation of Christ with his bride, the church, that we find celebrations like the Fourth of July distracting.

“But, the bands and the fireworks are so undeniably entertaining. I am not suggesting we should avoid such entertainment. No, I will not tell you that. However, I will point out that if such entertainment seems more compelling that the celebration of this meal we are about to share together then we have a problem. For in this Eucharist God gives to us the very body and blood of his Son so that our desires will become part of God’s desire of his world. This is the end of all sacrifice, particularly the sacrifices made in the name of nations, so that we can rest in the presence of one another without fear, envy, and violence. In this meal, the beauty of our Lord blazes across the sky, rendering pale all other celebrations. So, come and taste the goodness and the beauty of our God, and, in so consuming, may we be a people who may even be able to enjoy the Fourth without being consumed by it.” – Stanley Hauerwas

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As Christians, what are we celebrating when we celebrate our freedom? Is it our freedom from the monarchic rule of England almost 250 years ago? Or are we be celebrating our freedom from the destructive powers of sin? Are we celebrating our freedom to drink beer, have a BBQ, and blow stuff up? Or are we celebrating our freedom from the shadow of death?