Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

Love The Sinner

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 your 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 your neighbor’s eye. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It’s sounds so Christian, doesn’t it? 

Surely, when Jesus was delivering his sermon on the mount, he summarized the whole thing with love the sinner, hate the sin.

Surely, if we Christians lived according to those six words, the world would be a better place.

Surely, loving sinners and hating sin is what the church is supposed to do!

And yet, it’s not in the Bible.

In my experience, when people, and by people I mean Christians, say, “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are almost always referring to the LGBTQIA community. For them, it’s a Christian way to say, “I love my Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual friend, but I hate that they’re Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual.”

In our post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is the means by which we can cover our real feelings all while appearing congenial toward those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

However, over the last few years, I’ve heard Christians use the expression within the realm of political disagreement. And, frankly, its been rather amazing to see how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about the LGBTQIA community has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country.

“Well, I know that dirty rotten scoundrel is going to vote for Trump again, but he’s my brother so I still love him” Or, “If Joe Biden is elected he’s going to absolutely ruin this country, but he’s a Christian so I’ve got to try and love him.”

So, whether it’s disagreements about who can get married or who can lead the church or who should be President, love the sinner, hate the sin has become our go-to expression. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but in actuality it’s rather difficult to hate another person’s sin alone, without harming the sinner.

Sin! Can you believe you’re listening to a preacher talk about sin? We don’t talk about it much anymore in mainline protestant circles. 

Pastors, like me, would rather talk about God’s loving nature, God’s unending forgiveness, God’s desire for mercy, instead of God’s judgment. 

We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors than to tell you to tell your neighbor that 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 something fresh and new even 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, repent or burn forever.

That stuff.

We’re largely afraid of sin today. And not sin as a particular set of behavioral patterns, but because talk of it simply makes us uncomfortable. I’ve heard from countless people on countless occasions how they don’t want Sunday morning to feel like a drag on top of their already difficult lives, so preachers like me talk about the Gospel without ever mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who once taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin.

And, because it has been removed from the lexicon of church, we don’t really know what sin is anymore.

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

And here’s the chief thing about sin: We all do it. 

All of us.

From the preacher preaching right now to every person listening.

We are all sinners.

But, more importantly, we are all sinners for whom Christ died.

Love the sinner – of course we’re supposed to love the sinner – that’s what Jesus did. The problem with it is that Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

And the distinction is important. It is important because if we say, “we’re going to love sinners” we will automatically view others as sinners before being our neighbors. Which, even though its true, it tends to put us in a place of judgment where we are the righteous and they, whoever they are, are not.

Loving sinners is further problematized by the fact that we already often understand and label others by their mistakes and failures and sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, or even the frequency, we are very quick to call people cheaters, adulterers, liars, etc.

Or, to put it another way, instead of seeing our neighbors as neighbors, we tend to see them through the lens of their biggest mistake.

When I started at my first church I was pretty nervous. I was fresh out of seminary, with a head full of ideas, and no real understanding of what I had gotten myself into.

Nevertheless, I found myself unpacking all my big and important theology books in my first office, all while day dreaming about what to say in my first sermon, when I opened the top drawer of the desk and found a sealed envelope with the words, “For The New Preacher” on it.

Up to that point I had not had a single conversation with the pastor I was following – the pastor had recently retired and moved away and I was therefore entering the church without any knowledge of the church.

But there was this envelope, in the desk, for me, and it was clearly left by the last pastor.

So, eager to glean anything that I could, I tore it open.

Inside I found a solitary piece of paper with the words, “DO NOT TRUST.”

Underneath which were five names of individuals from the congregation.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard I tried to forget the note, no matter how hard I tried to embrace the particular individuals in spite of what I read, my entire perspective had been upended by those three words: “DO NOT TRUST.”

The same thing happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. 

And yet, of course, Christians are called to love sinners. 

Because, in the end, that exactly what Christ does for all of us.

All of us would do well to remember that we’re in the same boat with everyone else. Which is to say, sinners are who we are. The best of us and the worst of us, we’re all sinners. The challenge with that recognition is that we are almost all better at recognizing the sins in others far before we can recognize them in ourselves.

Which brings us to the second part of the statement in question today. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

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 mighty good at seeing and pointing out the sins in others. That’s what Facebook and Twitter are all about! There’s just something so enjoyable when we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

To bring it back to politics for a moment: We’ve seen the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the last two weeks with leaders from both parties speaking publicly about who should be elected (or re-elected) come November. And, without getting into specifics, both parties spent the majority of their conventions not talking about themselves and what they want to accomplish, but what’s wrong with the other party and how if those other people over there are elected (or re-elected) it will ruin everything. 

Judgement, contrary to the commands against it by Jesus, is our cup of tea.

And whenever we “hate the sin” we jump straight up onto pedestals of our own creation to look down about the weak.

Jesus himself spent his whole ministry with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. You know, people like us.

Jesus routinely chose to gather with the likes of the worst to break bread, to offer healing, and, perhaps most importantly, to offer them most precious gift of all: his time.

And he said to all those sinners, “Follow me.”

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

Instead, when Jesus encountered the utter depravity of those in his midst, he offered them, strangely enough, forgiveness.

But we are not like Jesus. We regularly fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We see the world in all of its wrongness and we believe, deep in our bones, that the problems of the world can be blamed entirely on other people.

Even preachers, preachers like me, fall into this trap. Just take a gander at some of the sermons online throughout this pandemic, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find me, standing right here wearing a slightly different outfit, calling out the mistakes of others. I mean, this whole sermon series “That’s NOT In The Bible” is about calling to question the Christian types who use these non-biblical expressions which, at the end of the day, is remarkably judgmental!

And yet, the irony notwithstanding, saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us purveyors of judgment. It gives us the space to ridicule and belittle those with whom we disagree all while maintain some semblance of a Christian disposition. But whenever we fall back to that frame-of-reference, whenever we use it as the means by which we can justify our judgements, we fail to recognize the logs in our own eyes.

Should we pretend then that sin doesn’t exist and that we can continue merrily doing whatever we want whenever we want?

Or course not.

There is sin in the world, plenty of it. But before we go out pointing at all those sins, we all do well to look in the mirror.

Because all of us make bad choices. We all avoid doing things we know we should do. We all flock together for like-minded judgments against others. And we all keep dropping vaguely Christian expressions that aren’t in the Bible.

But, in the end, Jesus looks right at us, right into the depths of our being, and says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

And that’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we don’t deserve it.

Just look at the parables; more often than not they end with someone throwing out the ledger book, or offering forgiveness before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Just look at Jesus life; pronouncing forgiveness from the cross, or reconciling with the abandoning and disciples in the upper room, or choosing the murderous Paul to be the chief evangelist of the first century.

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and even the ones we’re proud of), God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees all of our self-righteous indignation, and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God has read all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, God knows our internet search histories and still stays, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God is there with us in the comments section of Facebook, God hears the sighs we offer in response to those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, God knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

We say it, we read it, we might even live by it (or think we live by it), but it creates more problems than it solves. Sure, loving sinners is what we’re supposed to do, but it often results in us lording it over those we deem sinners, which doesn’t sound a whole lot like love to begin with.

Loving sinners is the aim of the church, but most of the time we fail. We’ve simply got logs too big in our eyes to do much of anything.

Thanks be to God, then, for Jesus Christ who loves us and forgives us in spite of those logs. Amen. 

God Won’t

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Doomscrolling.

Have you heard of it?

It’s falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with negative content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. 

Basically, instead of retreating to the binge-worthy content of Netflix many of us are actually binge-watching the world flush down the drain.

We can’t unplug or disconnect ourselves from the headlines – COVID cases spiking across the country, a horrific blast rocking Beirut, social unrest resulting in broken buildings and broken people.

And, like slowing down on the interstate past a wreck, we can help ourselves from staring.

We’ve become addicted to the world of bad news so much so that a new word was created to help explain it – doomscrolling.

And it’s not just what we’re doing on social media – it’s how we’re having our conversations with friends, family, and even neighbors.

Did you see the latest numbers for the virus?

Can you believe he went golfing again during all of this?

What kind of idiot posts a video of a Corvette while preparing to run for president?

So it goes.

And, I must confess dear online worshippers, even I am not immune to the bizarre charms of doomscrolling. I find myself, at times, scrolling through the likes of Twitter and Facebook only to discover more and more bad news. 

Last weekend the city of Staunton, on the other side of Virginia, experienced heavy rains in a very short period of time that resulted in horrific flooding. Restaurants, businesses, homes all filled with water that destroyed everything.

The videos and the pictures have been devastating. And they felt all the more pressing for me personally because Staunton is where I was first appointed before coming here. The restaurants and businesses were those that I frequented, and now they’re all navigating through a completely unknown future.

So I was scrolling through the videos and images, reading the comments from various community members offering support, and then I noticed a comment that seemed to keep cropping up on every different post. No matter how bad or grim the situation appeared, someone felt the need to write, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It is my sincere hope and prayer that, in the midst of a moment of pain or fear or grief, no one has ever dismissively said to you, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

But chances are, someone has.

It is near the top of the list of Christian expressions used when we don’t know what else to say and, spoiler warning, it’s NOT in the Bible.

Sure, there are plenty of verses about how God will see us through to the other side, about how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and so on. But the specificity of claiming that God won’t give us more than we can handle implies a whole lot about God that it absolutely shouldn’t.

To begin with, “God won’t give you…” immediately sets up a theological understanding that God, you know the author of salvation, gives every single little thing to us, on purpose; the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the love and the pain.

Which means, according to the expression, God sows our suffering.

As has been said from this place on a number of occasions, if God delights in our suffering, if God purposely sends bad things to happen to us in order to punish us or teach us a lesson or make us stronger, then God isn’t worthy of our worship. 

God, absolutely, rejoices with us when we rejoice and God, absolutely, weeps with us when we weep, but that’s not the same thing as God authoring and willing every little thing that happens to us.

God is not some sadist who rejoices in our tribulations.

God is not an architect of divine destruction.

God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what difficult things he should send for us to handle.

Let me put it this way: Can you imagine reaching out to a neighbor whose house just burned to the ground only to pithily remark, “God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

Maybe you can imagine it, maybe you’ve even said it to someone before. And, chances are, dear listeners, you’re pretty decent people, and if you ever said something like that you were only doing so because you wanted to cheer up the person suffering, or you wanted them to believe they could make it through, or you believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

And we should try to comfort those in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and grief. 

We should help in ways both seen and unseen.

But the more we say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” the more we make God into monster and the more we place the burdens of the world entirely on one person’s shoulder.

Jesus has been doing his Jesus thing for a little bit. Been baptized by his cousin in the river Jordan, called some of the first disciples, and word has started to spread about this Messiah man.

Did you hear the he healed Peter’s mother-in-law?

What kind of Kingdom is he talking about all the time?

And have you seen his followers – what kind of Messiah enlists fishermen?

Jesus moves from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, preaching about a new age and healing the sick all while seeking the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But Jesus needs some rest, so he returns to Capernaum for a spell.

He’s sitting in the house, kicking up his feet, when the whole town shows up at the door looking for a word, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they’ve longed for, yearning for someone to make something of their nothing.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, some friends are milling about, loitering their afternoon away, when word of the Messiah reaches their ears.

And, without taking much time to discuss their plan, they drop everything and run to their friend’s house. They find him like they always do, laying on a mat in the corner of the room, wasting away without the use of his legs.

He can’t even put up a word of protest before the friends are dragging him out of the house because, surely, if anyone can do something about the condition of his condition, Jesus can.

They carry him through the streets on a blanket, knocking people from side to side, but as they arrive in front of the house the crowds are so thick they can’t get any closer.

Ah, but these are no ordinary friends and this is no ordinary day – they take matters into their own hands.

They lift the paralyzed man up onto the closest rooftop, and they cross from house to house until they reach their destination. They dig a hole straight through the roof, and they lower their friend to the Lord.

Jesus, now interrupted from his sermon, looks up to see the spectacle above his head and smiles saying, “Good job! I’m impressed!” 

And then he looks straight into the eyes of the paralytic, having witnessed the faith of his friends, and says, “You are forgiven.”

The strange new world of the Bible is indeed strange.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t berate them for destroying property in the midst of the reckless hope for healing and transformation. Jesus doesn’t wax lyrical about what is and isn’t possible in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t interrogate the paralyzed man about his past and every choice he ever made.

Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness.

The rest of the story includes a rebuttal from the scribes accusing Jesus of blasphemy to which he memorably replied, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? Well, to show you that I really mean business I’m going to say both. Hey formerly paralyzed man! Get outta here and go celebrate with your friends.”

It’s wild stuff.

Jesus delights not only in forgiving the man of his sins (what sins?) but he also restores him to wholeness. 

And why does Jesus do this? Well, Jesus can do whatever Jesus wants, but scripture also dangles out this little thread of the faithfulness of the man’s friends. 

Friends who, in the end, have such a profound hope in what Jesus can do they carry their friend, literally dig through a roof, just so something remarkable might happen.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think about pallbearers when I read this story – those who carry the dead into and out of the church.

I also can’t help myself from considering the many who have carried me during times when I needed it most. Friends, family, and even strangers who, when encountering the condition of my condition, said, “Okay, it’s our turn to carry you for a bit.”

Because whether it’s a friend in need, or a body being put into the ground, when we can’t handle what’s happening in our lives, we need others who can carry us, and who can carry us to Jesus.

Life tends to come at us pretty fast. These days all the more. We might’ve been fed the lie since birth that “we’re in control of our destinies” but a pandemic and economic instability is quick to remind us of the truth – all of us will face things that are more than we can handle, on our own.

So here’s a potential corrective to the statement in question today: It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But when life give you more than you can handle, God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

This acknowledges that tribulations and hardships will occur and that when we go through the muck and mire of life, God will be there in the midst of it with us.

And when those time comes, because they will, it is good and right for us to admit, “You know, I can’t do this by myself – I need help.” There simply are times when we need a doctor, or a financial expert, or a pastor, or a therapist to help us through to the other die.

God does not give us what we can or can’t handle – but God does give us Jesus so that we can handle what life gives us. 

There was a woman who, back in the 90’s, was struggling with a horrible drug addiction and was trying her best to kick the habit all while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. The new mother was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing that every day she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, or that her child would be taken away, or (most frighteningly) maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her. 

So one night, around 2 am, she was lying in the fetal position on the floor desperately trying to will herself into turning her life around. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that he mother had sent in the mail 4 years earlier, back when they were still talking.

The new mother didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, but she knew she couldn’t do it on her own so she grabbed the phone and dialed the number.

A man answered, and the woman blurted out, “I got this number from my mom, do you think maybe you could talk to me?”

She heard some shuffling around on the other line and then the man said, “Uh, yeah. What’s going on?”

She realized right then that she hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even herself, and without thinking much about it she said, “I’m not in a good place and I’m scared.” And she kept going, she told the man about her drug problem, and that she was worried about her baby, and on and on and on.

And the man, well, he listened.

He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

They phone call lasted until the sun started to creep through the blinds and the woman, noticing how long she had been on the phone, said, “Thank you for staying with me, and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verses I should read or something?”

The man laughed, brushed her comment aside, and she interrupted by saying, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you to not hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him nonetheless and they talked until the conversation came to its natural conclusion. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know was possible. She said she discovered, for the first time, that there is love out in the world, some of it being unconditional, and some of it was meant for her.

After that, everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.

When she tell her story she always ends it with this: “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come right in.”

Today we live in a world under the shadow of fear. Between civil unrest, an infectious pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’re all looking to put our hope somewhere. The world puts its hope in human strategies – the belief in progressivism is very tempting! But as Christians, we know that human strategies rarely, if ever, work.

But God is full of impossible possibility. God can make new what no one else can. God can make a way where there is no way.

In the end, that’s what God’s all about. God helps us handle what life gives us through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes it’s through a wrong number.

Sometimes it’s through a group of friends willing to dig through a roof.

God won’t abandon us to our own device. God won’t leave us alone. God won’t let life get the better of us. 

Because when life give us more than we handle, God will help us handle all that we’ve been given. Amen. 

The Gospel According To Paul

Romans 8.1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the  church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.

But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.

It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.

Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.

And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.

That is, all of them.

Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”

Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!

No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do. 

At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ. 

And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.

Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace. 

And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!

Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.

Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.

Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.  

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Hell No!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 21.8-21, Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17, Romans 6.1b-11, Matthew 10.24-39). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including advice for pastors, Liturgy of the Ordinary, the practicality of the psalms, prayerful humiliation, dying to sin, abusing the Word, and The Size of the Problem. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hell No!

The Story We Didn’t Choose

Acts 7.55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Something happened to Stephen.

What exactly? Well, scripture doesn’t give us much.

All we know is that he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the earliest days of the church. He was full of the Spirit and, apparently, had the face of an angel, but he was eventually dragged before the council and accused of blasphemy.

His response to the accusation?

Stephen tells a story, in fact he tells the story of scripture from Abraham to Jesus.

And it gets him killed.

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The lectionary text for today doesn’t give us the whole speech from the first martyr, but the speech sealed his fate. Stephen repeats the history of God with God’s people and points them to the truth of Jesus’ lordship. But that is enough for those who gather. So much so, they cover their own ears and rush against him, drag him outside of the city, and stone him to death. 

Such is the fate of those who choose to speak the truth.

And the truth Stephen told was a story that he would not have picked on his own.

After all, why would anyone tell a story that would get them murdered?

Something happened to Stephen.

And the something that happened, was Jesus.

This is who Jesus is, Stephen tells the crowds, the long awaited and exalted Messiah who rules now and forever. Jesus Christ is Lord.

We call that a confession. For, to confess the Lordship of Christ is to affirm there is no other lord over our lives. It means that our allegiance is to Jesus and to no one else. It means we cannot remain as we are.

Which sounds good and fine until you consider the countless others that are constantly vying for our allegiance even today, and how stuck we are in our ways.

For instance, we like to talk about the Freedom of Religion in the US. It means we’re free to exercise our faith, so long as we do so within certain limits. It means that you and I can say and do and believe and act according to a tradition, and that we are somehow protected in our practice. 

And yet, this Freedom that we hold so dear has often resulted in religiosity being confused with national allegiance.

The terms “good American” and “good Christian” have become tied to one another without us having to consider whether or not those things have anything to do with each other.

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Part of our presumed goodness, as Americans or Christians, has a lot to do with not upsetting the status quo; a certain delight in things remaining the same and never calling anything into question. Politeness and kindness and deference have become virtuous in a way that those behaviors are called upon to be emulated from the time we’re children whether its in a public school classroom, or tucked away in the furthest reaches of a Sunday school lesson. 

But this story of Stephen is an ever ringing reminder to us practitioners of polite and civil religion that once there were Christians who did things we would never imagine – who quite joyfully parted with possessions, their families and friends, and even their very lives in order to remain faithful.

There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.

But now we’re addicted to whatever lies disrupt our lives the least.

The vast majority of us live under the tyrannical presumption that each of us get to do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want to whomever we want. And we have the gall to call it the pursuit of happiness. 

In this distorted view of reality, every person gets to make up his or her mind based on the presumption that our choices are made free from the influence of others.

It doesn’t take long to look around and see how much we really are under the influence of other people and other things. Our diet of media consumption alone says a tremendous amount about what we think, believe, speak, and act. 

Christianity, on the other hand, reminds those of us with ears to hear that we don’t really have minds worth making up. Precisely because we regularly chose to do things we know we shouldn’t. 

And we do it all the time.

We struggle with the choices we make, and the stories we consume, and even more the stories we tell.

And it’s not just a matter of which grocery store to shop in and what television shows to watch. We’re talking about what’s good, and true, and beautiful.

But how in the world could we ever be expected to know what choices to make?

That’s, actually, kind of the point of the church. The church grabs hold of us and says, “Look, you don’t know what powers and stories have you under their control, so we’re going to make you part of this story instead, the story of Jesus.”

We might like to think that we had something to do with all of this, that we chose Jesus in our time of need. But the truth is, we don’t get to chose God, nor would we on our own.

I mean, why would anyone willingly sign up for turning the other cheek, and giving away 10% of their income, and reaching out to the last, least, lost, little, and dead?

God chooses us, in spite of us.

God happens to us.

Just like God happened to Stephen.

And we can read this story of his willingness to proclaim the truth, we can encounter the punishment that rained down upon him by the crowds, and we might feel tempted to just remove ourselves form the wider society. If people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus, why bother risking life and limb? And, without even realizing it, we find ourselves back in the position of doing whatever we can to maintain the status quo and to avoid upsetting the apple cart at all costs.

But, turning things upside down is what we do. 

Or, at the very least, it’s what Jesus does.

A Christian is someone who calls a thing what it is. Which is just another way of saying that Christians tell the truth.

And we don’t do much of that these days.

Instead, we want to hear about God’s love, and mercy, and grace.

Which is all true and good and beautiful.

But we often talk about those things at the expense of telling the truth.

We want everyone to be happy all the time.

But how in the world can anyone be happy in a world of such horrific and terrible violence? 

How can anyone be happy in a world in which an innocent black man can be murdered for no other reason than the color of his skin? How can anyone be happy knowing that what happened to Emmett Till is still happening even in 2020? How can anyone be happy when an indiscriminate virus is actually discriminately affecting certain people more than others?

As Christians, our call isn’t to happiness. Particularly when one’s happiness is usually achieved through someone else’s suffering. 

Our call is to a life of adventure. The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us again and again that we’ve been grafted into the strange new world of the Bible through the work and the life of Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, think about a time you received a gift you didn’t want. Perhaps you were hoping to get a new bicycle for your birthday but instead you got a book. Maybe you hated the book because you really really wanted that bike, but then one strange rainy afternoon you picked up the book and were immediately transported to another world. And, low and behold, you were trained to have wants you didn’t know you should have.

That what the church is all about – it’s an adventure we didn’t know we wanted to be on.

The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.

We tell the truth and we have to the truth told to us.

That’s the name of the game. 

And, frankly, it’s not something we would really want on our own. It’s something that happens to us. It happened to Stephen all those centuries ago. It has happened to countless saints over the years who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, stood up and said things they never would’ve on their own. 

Without those who tell the truth, we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes over and over again.

It has been rightly said by many people in many places that America’s original sin is racism. 

This is the truth.

It has plagued every single moment and every single decision and ever single interaction. It festers in the foundation of all that we hold dear. And we still carry it with us in all of our comings and all of our goings even today. 

And rather than confronting the truth of the condition of our condition, we act like it’s not real.

But it is.

I alluded to it already, but a few months ago Ahmaud Arbery went for a jog one afternoon and it ended in his death. Two white men saw him run past their lawn and decided to chase him down with weapons in a truck. 

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That’s racism.

That’s sin.

And it’s not some isolated incident that happened in some far away place.

That racism happens whenever someone locks their doors when driving in particular neighborhoods, whenever someone crosses the street because of someone walking toward them, whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to whatever they might classify as other.

And we, more often than not, cover our ears whenever the term racism is uttered. And, to be clear, when I say we in this instance I mean those of us who are white. It is precisely our white fragility, to use a term that has come into vogue as of recent, that results in black bodies being locked up in prison at a staggeringly disproportionate rate, punished in schools for lower offenses than their white peers, and buried in cemeteries for committing the crime of running while black.

Christians need to be judged for their complicity in systems that are racist. 

Christians need to speak the truth about what is right and wrong and good and evil in our society.

It will obviously create conflict and not everyone will be happy, but at least we’ll be talking about things that really matter.

Like Black Lives, for instance.

Because right now, black lives don’t seem to matter at all to those of us who are white.

Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken months of discourse and social media upheaval before Ahmaud Arbery’s attackers were arrested. 

Christianity isn’t a story we would choose on our own because it requires so much of us. It calls us to look into the mirror and realize that when we read a story like the one about the stoning of Stephen, we are less like Stephen and more like the crowds who covered their ears and rushed forward. Christianity forces us to come to grips with our own sinfulness and our inability to transform ourselves.

After all, that’s why we call Jesus our Savior. It implies our need to be saved, and in particular our need to be saved from ourselves.

But we don’t like the idea that there’s anything wrong with us. So instead we trade out the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of the status quo. We say pithy things like, “Jesus was killed because he wanted us to love each other.” 

But that’s crazy.

Jesus wasn’t killed because of his talk of love – Jesus was killed because he challenged the powers that be. He was killed for telling the truth.

That is the story given to us, a story that confronts us.

It’s what happened to Stephen

It’s what happens to us.

Whether we want it or not. So be it. Amen. 

Too Good To Be True

Acts 2.14a, 36-41

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

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He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.

He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.

Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.

At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living. 

He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”

The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”

So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”

“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”

So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child. 

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.

After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

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That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.

And, I love that story.

I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.

Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave him the Good News.

The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”

Repent and be baptized.

Turn and join us. 

Your sins are forgiven.

Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.

It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.

Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.

Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.

But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?

Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.

That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.

Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!

But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

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And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely. 

Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.

Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change. 

We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it. 

We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention. 

We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.

In short, we no longer call sin, sin.

And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.

Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.

And yet, it’s true.

We’re all sinners.

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There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves. 

Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”

You notice anything missing in all of that?

Maybe God?

Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you. 

Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.

But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place. 

Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse. 

When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.

Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.

We’re forgiven. 

If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.

Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.

We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word. 

While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”

The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen. 

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Exodus 17.1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!

I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.

Fine, I’ll do it.

Hey Moses! I need a word.

We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!

And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!

Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!

Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…

A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.

So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

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That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:

A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…

Or:

A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…

Or:

Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!

And so it goes.

We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us. 

It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.

It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.

  It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.

And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present. 

Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.

It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.

And we break that one all the time.

We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short. 

They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.

The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.

But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.

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And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.

God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God. 

Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.

When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.

We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.

I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down. 

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The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.

This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.

We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”

But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations. 

The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.

And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.

But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.

At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s not the bucket he notices.

He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.

And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”

And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her. 

Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen. 

The Condition Of Our Condition

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that it in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 

This is where it all really starts, here back at the beginning. Sure, we’ve got the creation of the whole cosmos in the first seven days in Genesis 1, but this is where the story gets good.

It gets juicy.

The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the greatest of stories, up until the advent of Jesus Christ. What we discover and find here in the garden is inexhaustible, it can never be fully mined, and it cannot be explained away. So much, if not all, of who we are is founded upon what happens to these two with their mid-afternoon fruit snack. 

Today we re-enter the strange new world of the Bible and learn how the created order became utterly disordered.

The garden is called paradise and in these few verses paradise is lost. Of course, when we hear the word “paradise” we conjure up in our minds all sorts of images and ideas that don’t really have much to do with Eden. It’s not all crystal clear beaches and palm trees and drinks with ice that never fully melt away. It is paradise simply because it was a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound too much like paradise to us.

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We can’t even fathom how communal the communion is because it just sounds wrong. And if it sounds wrong it does so because we don’t like the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God. 

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors and in our internet search histories and in our knee-jerk reactions. We know how quick we are to judge and how untrusting we can be, and frankly we’d like to keep God out of all that, thank you very much.

Whatever paradise might have been for Adam and Eve, whatever the community called communion looked like, it definitely wasn’t like the world today.

Nations reeling from the threats of the Corona-virus and what it means for the so-called global community.

Children relying on free lunches at schools during the weeks because they don’t have any food to eat at home over the weekend.

Individuals seeking solace and comfort in the digital community because meeting people in the real world has become too difficult or too frightening.

But here we find our first parents in the paradise of God and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You are never in need of anything at all! There’s just one teeny tiny restriction. Think of the generosity of God here before the fall. God has opened up the entirely of everything for them with one little exception, and it’s not enough.

Imagine it like this: You’re a child, and you’re spending the afternoon at your grandmother’s house. The weather is perfect outside and she’s got this incredible playground for you to enjoy, there’s a pitcher of cold lemonade waiting for you on the porch and you can do anything you want! Except, your grandmother tell you, you can’t leave the yard.

Fair enough right?

Until the next door neighbor comes to the slats in the fence and calls out your name. “Hey look, I’ve got a few toys over here on my side, why don’t you come over here and play with me?”

There’s one rule – don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Don’t leave the yard.

Enter the snake, the next door neighbor. 

Did God really tell you not to eat from that one tree?

Did your grandmother really tell you not to come and play over here?

God wants you to be able to eat – just take a bite.

Your grandmother wants you to enjoy yourself, come and join me.

The seeds of doubt are planted.

You can’t help herself, and before you know it you’re playing in the sandbox on the other side of the fence, the fruit is dripping out of the corners of your mouth.

And Adam, your best friend, he doesn’t even put up a fight and just jumps right in with the fun.

And your eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect of our first parents’ choice was instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There’s no going back to what life was like before. They’ve had a taste of the other side of the fence.

What do they fell with all of this new knowledge? Are they puffed up and feeling invincible? Are they ready to take over the world?

No.

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They are afraid, they are ashamed, they are embarrassed. They see themselves as they had never seen themselves before, and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion some fig leaves together to make clothes, and they go hide in the bushes.

This is the root of all sin. It was then and still is now. We want to be God. We want to determine out own limits. We want to be in control of ourselves and others. 

And whenever we catch a glimpse of our true selves in the mirror, when we recognize all that we want and can not and should not have, then we hide ourselves away in shame.

And that’s the end of the story. Or, at least, that’s where the scripture reading stops for today. But, of course, that’s not the end – it’s only the beginning. Everything is uphill from here on out – uphill because it never gets easier.

But perhaps never is too strong of word.

But lets not skip to the end too quickly.

In the garden they make their choice, they begin to see, and they decide the best course of action is to hide, from each other, from themselves, and from God.

Prior to their decision this fear and shame was inconceivable, but now they find themselves in the bushes.

And this, for better and much worse, is exactly who we are. We are stuck in the bushes for good, hiding in our own self-knowledge, hoping that God won’t find us and see us as we know ourselves to be.

This is truly where everything went wrong. 

It is the division between all that is good, namely God, and all that is bad, namely us. 

We are, whether we like to admit it or not, rebellious, disobedient, idolatrous, and selfish.

And it is precisely at this moment in the story, as we see Adam and Eve hiding, that we often let the story run off in the wrong direction. For, I hope you have noticed so far, that almost everything I have said in this sermon has been entirely about us – our choices, our mistakes, our futility. 

It hasn’t really been about God.

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This text, usually for the worse, has been used as a call to arms for those who would call themselves Christians in one of two ways. 

One, we are told about how bad we are and how badly we need to feel about how bad we are. We leave church wallowing in self-pity and feeling even more exhausted than we did on the way in for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

Or, Two, we’re told all about how people outside the walls of the church are bad and how it is our job to go out there and fix them in all of their badness by bringing them in here so they too can start feeling bad about how bad they are.

And, sure, sometimes we do need to feel bad about our badness. Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Of course not. 

But, that’s not the whole story. 

For as much as we might want to believe that its all up to us, or that the church exists to help broken people fix themselves, or that we have to go searching for God, or whatever else – that’s not the story of the Bible.

The story of the Bible is that God is the one who comes to be and dwell and find his lost, and broken, and even dead creation.

Notice, this is the first thing God does after the fateful choice of Adam and Eve. God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky or send in a billowing tornado out of anger. No, God goes into the garden, and like a loving parent (or grandparent), kindly intones, “Adam, where are you?”

Adam, Even, and all the rest of us are lost. And for some strange reason, we keep willing ourselves to believe that we are the ones who have to find ourselves. We keep trying to get back to Eden as if we are capable of doing so.

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things all in the attempts at making this life more like whatever we think paradise should be. 

We got rid of slavery only to instead have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We tried to protect the freedom of the individual and instead we got greater wealth inequality than just about any other place on the planet.

We tried to produce advancements in medicine, and I just read that American life spans have shorten for the first time in decades due to the rise in the opioid epidemic.

Think about that for a moment – scores of people in this country would rather commit slow suicide than have to keep living with people like us. 

Whenever we read this story from the beginning we forget that it is exactly that, a beginning. The rest of the Bible will be about how God refuses to abandon us even after we fail to listen again and again and again. God does not give up on his children even though they keep hopping the fence to go play with the forbidden toys. God keeps waiting on the porch with the lemonade.

And for a lot of scripture, that’s kind of the whole story. God on one side of the fence, and we his creatures hanging out on the other side. At times, God will toss over a little bit of manna, or a little bit of wisdom, to help make sense out of the chaos of our own making. 

But then Jesus, God in the flesh, breaks down the whole fence, brings a new creation into existence. God, in Christ, rectifies the wrongs of Eden and opens up a new paradise for us, one even greater than what we had in that first garden. 

And we, believe it or not, get a taste of the goodness of that promised garden right here and right now. This thing we call communion is both a foretaste of what is to come, and is also a call back to what we once had in the garden. This is what God offers us, even though we broke and break the rules, even though we chose to leave the paradise God gave to us. 

For we, despite our attempts at self-righteousness and best intentions, are the kind of people who, one Friday afternoon when the sky went dark, as church and state were finally working together, democracy in action, happened to torture the Son of God to death on a cross. 

And yet, with some of his final breaths he pronounces not damnation but instead invitation. The Son of man calls us by name, with open arms on the cross, and destroys the fence of our own making forever and ever. Amen.

Salvation Is Confounding

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Thomas Irby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 58.1-12, Psalm 112.1-10, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20). Thomas is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tacoma, Washington. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Seattle hatred, using the S-word in church, the work of the Lord, focusing on what we don’t, the social gospel, scripturally shaped imaginations, the evils of capitalism, salty Christians, and being least in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Salvation Is Confounding

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